HOUMA, La. – The administrator of the $20 billion compensation fund for victims of the Gulf oil spill said Monday he might waive the current requirement that wages earned from helping out in the cleanup be subtracted from people's spill claims.
Doing so would be a key concession following strong criticism from residents about the claims process.
Meanwhile Monday, BP crews resumed drilling the final 50 feet of a relief well meant to allow them to permanently seal the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico. John Wright, who's leading drilling efforts aboard the Development Driller III vessel, told The Associated Press in an e-mail that the operation had resumed. BP said crews started drilling at 1:40 p.m. CDT.
BP and the government have said it would take about four days from the time crews started drilling again to intersect the blown-out well. Once the relief well intersects the blown-out well, crews will pump in mud and cement to permanently seal the well.
At the town hall meeting in Houma, La., fund czar Kenneth Feinberg told hundreds of people who packed a convention center that he is reconsidering the requirement that cleanup wages be subtracted from claims. He said he understands the loud concerns raised by people who are still hurting.
"I'm taking it under advisement," Feinberg said. "The last time I said, no way, I'm deducting it. Now, it's open for discussion."
The April 20 rig explosion killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from BP PLC's undersea well into the Gulf of Mexico. The flow of crude was first stopped by a cap placed atop the well in mid-July.
Glenn Poche, a 61-year-old shrimper from Lafitte, La., said after the town hall meeting with Feinberg that he felt like he had more questions than answers about why he only received a $600 emergency payment for six months. He said he was making thousands each month from his business before the waters he worked in were shut down because of the spill.
"He gave me $3.30 a day to live on," Poche said. "I can't pay my bills."
Like other people at the forum, Poche said he believes it is unfair for claims evaluators to give payments based on 2009 wages when shrimp prices were lower last year than they have been in 2010. Feinberg told those gathered that several types of financial documents could be used to show income, not just 2009 tax returns.
Feinberg also said he would consider giving people in certain situations a supplemental payment after their emergency payment. Currently, people are getting an emergency payment and then, down the road, a lump-sum final payment. The final payment requires recipients agree not to sue BP.
"I will come back again and again to face the music, hear the criticisms, listen to the concerns," Feinberg said.
One after another, shrimpers, boat workers and other victims came up to a microphone and yelled their demands at Feinberg. Some cursed. Others shouted insults.
Their concerns included the slow payment process, the fact that some people in similar situations are receiving vastly different payments and the bureaucracy they have to go through to get their money.
Feinberg said the fund has paid out $150 million since he took over processing claims three weeks ago. Before that, BP was in charge of paying out claims, and it paid nearly $400 million.
Feinberg said his team hoped to finish processing remaining emergency payments in the next 30 days.
As of Monday, there were roughly 12,000 claims for emergency payments that have proper documentation that have yet to be paid, Feinberg said. Another 12,000 unpaid claims have inadequate documents. Five hundred claims filed are ineligible for money from the fund because they deal with impact from the oil drilling moratorium, while roughly 1,000 claims appear to be fraudulent, Feinberg said.
"I am doing the best I can," Feinberg said, as the crowd grew louder. "And if the best is not good enough, I am sorry."
Later, when Feinberg said there were many people who still wanted to ask questions and he had only 10 minutes left to address them, one woman, in tears, shouted: "We have the rest of our lives."
Feinberg told The Associated Press after the event that within the next week to 10 days, Gulf residents will have another key question answered: How much he is earning for his services. He declined to disclose that figure to the AP on Monday.
He said he plans to continue to confront his critics. One angry man charged toward Feinberg after the event, demanding to speak to him personally. Several police officers swarmed around Feinberg.
"Absolutely not a thought in the world that I would throw in the towel," Feinberg told reporters.