Oil-Spill Victims: Where’s Justice?

A year after a drilling-rig explosion sent millions of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, thousands who lost their livelihoods still await payment of their claims.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Some members of Kenner Calvary Baptist Church in Metairie, La., used to make a hearty living along the Gulf of Mexico coast selling homemade gumbo and fried fish to tourists, making beds at once-bustling hotels and washing dishes at teeming restaurants. In turn, they made healthy donations at church on Sunday.

But then their way of living was wiped out when the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil-drilling rig spewed untold amounts of oil into the Gulf and along the coasts of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi exactly one year ago, causing 11 deaths and countless personal injury in one of the world’s largest environmental catastrophes.

The oil company BP, which took responsibility for cleaning up the disaster, set up a $20 billion spill-recovery fund to help business owners and workers recover losses. But claimants are complaining that the agency charged by the Obama administration and BP with disseminating payouts — the Gulf Coast Claims Facility — has been slow to pay, which has impeded recovery, dramatically impacting their quality of life.

Now, instead of tithing, once-proud members of Kenner Calvary Baptist Church have been forced to extend their hands for donations to help pay the rent and utility bills and to put food on the table, according to the pastor, the Rev. James E. Turner. The economy of Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, relies heavily on the fishing and seafood industries.

The problem has gotten so bad that Turner, activist Art Rocker and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held a sleepover outside BP’s offices last month (March 16 and 17) in Houma, La., to protest the payment process. The event drew about two dozen protesters, including members of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. The group said that more than 15,000 claims — many from poor people and small, minority area businesses — have gone unpaid.

“It’s causing people a lot of stress,” Turner told The Root. “We’re providing them with financial assistance and legal assistance with claims processing, but I’m outdone with the way it’s being handled. There is no rhyme or reason to who is being paid, which amounts to no one.”