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Heroic Activists in Louisiana Fight Back Against Corporate Greed

A small group of activists in the Gulf are pushing back against predators who try to profit from disasters.

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Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism. Kenneth Feinberg is now out as the administrator of the claims process. He had become a local symbol of the confluence of corporation and state, while also drawing ire for overseeing a process that has been  widely perceived as overly burdensome and time-consuming. Lynn Greer, whose firm BrownGreer LLC has helped with the Feinberg claims, will assume the role of interim facilitator, pending the approval of Patrick Juneau by the presiding judge, Carl Barbier. While the retention of Greer in the short-term is somewhat worrisome, she probably stays primarily for her familiarity with the existent process; she is someone who can ensure a seamless transition to the new system. Meanwhile, structuring the settlement as a class action suit should serve to streamline the claims process for a population that has expressed frustration with the convoluted nature of the Feinberg process. The deadline for filing a claim will be moved to April 2014, and all affected parties, even those who had not issued a claim under the previous system, will be automatically included.

The new process finally recognizes the medical impact of the spill. Feinberg stubbornly refused to acknowledge any medical claims, ultimately refusing all 200 health-related cases he received. This new process reverses course in finally submitting to claims addressing short-term health impacts related to the spill and the subsequent use of dispersants. In addition, a mechanism has been established to address potential long-term health effects, in the form of a " medical consultation" program that will endure 21 years. Nonetheless, the burden of proof remains on the plaintiffs, who are going to have to demonstrate a definite connection between their symptoms and the toxic chemicals they have been exposed to. As with other elements to the settlement, community members remain guardedly optimistic. Gulf Coast activist Christine Breault told me: “It expresses the concerns of the people of the Gulf, particularly when it comes to medical care. It is clear that although there may be problems with the terms, there will be some remedy available and medical and health care will be an issue. This wasn’t clear before.”

The government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the medical consequences of the oil spill are part of a larger effort to minimize the catastrophe, as well as the broader risk associated with extracting oil from below the seabed. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) in the Interior Department has been particularly active in this endeavor. In a 2007 environmental impact statement regarding oil well leases for the following five years, the agency found that “blowouts are rare events and of short duration, potential impacts to marine water quality are not expected to be significant," and that “These negative, short-term social and economic consequences of an oil spill are expected to be modest in terms of projected cleanup expenditures and the number of people employed in cleanup and remediation activities." 

Interior Department official Sylvia Baca played a particularly malicious role in the eventual approval of the Deepwater Horizon lease on April 6, 2009. A former senior management official at BP’s American headquarters in Houston, Baca later passed through the revolving door into the federal bureaucracy at the bequest of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. In a November 2010 investigative report, environmental journalist Jeffrey St. Clair said, “According to Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, Baca recused herself from all leasing decisions regarding BP. However, sources inside the Interior Department tell me that Baca played a key role in a procedural decision in the early days of the Obama administration that allowed the Deepwater Horizon project and Big Oil operations on federal lands to move forward with scant environmental review.”

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