Last week, BP announced an overhaul of its gulf oil spill claims process. More businesses would be eligible. More checks would be cut, and they’d be sent out faster. Claimants facing “urgent capital needs” could call a dedicated hotline.
But many businesses in Florida continue to face delays, and their owners are still finding their pleas for cash met with requests for documentation.
After a summer of cutting expenses, taking out loans and fretting over truck payments, some business owners in the fishing towns along Apalachicola Bay — where the oil never came ashore — worry that BP doesn’t understand their industry, and wonder whether Kenneth Feinberg is prepared to make them whole when he takes over the process later this month.
Jason Thomas of My-Way Seafood in Panacea says that business is down by thousands of dollars a week from last year, but no amount of documentation from his accountant seems to satisfy BP. On Friday, his colleague Debbie Logan returned from another fruitless three-hour trip to the claims office in nearby Crawfordville, frustrated by the lack of answers.
My-Way’s income varies from day to day, depending on the size of the catch (which can change as often as the weather), the number of tourists driving by, the fluctuating demand of cost-conscious restaurants and assorted other factors.
“They can’t understand how we do business like that,” Thomas says, but that’s the way it’s always been.
Finding a way to fairly compensate My-Way for its losses, a process already fraught with uncertainty, is further complicated by the fact that oil never made it this far east.
For perhaps a month after the spill, businesses like My-Way saw a spike in demand, as customers stocked up on months’ worth of seafood, fearing that Gulf of Mexico fisheries could be lost forever.
“After that, it just died, like somebody turned a faucet off,” Thomas says.
For a while, though, the fish were still biting. Fishermen could catch plenty of fish, but they couldn’t sell them. As seafood from other parts of the gulf became unavailable, the price of shrimp and oysters spiked, and seafood distributors like Lynne’s Quality Oysters in Eastpoint were squeezed. Individual fishermen lined up for $5,000 claims, but that was little help for larger businesses.
“Five thousand dollars won’t even pay my utility bills,” says Lynne Martina, the owner. She says she’s taken out a loan from the Small Business Administration to stay afloat. Business is recovering, slowly, but there’s no telling when it will return to normal.
Calculating the spill’s tangential effects on seafood markets is difficult. In Florida, the industry has been hurting for years, due to strict catch limits and competition from cheap flash-frozen imports. For every seafood distributor still operating along U.S. 98, there’s another one boarded up.
Still, Thomas says, he’s been able to make a decent living off the family business. Now he says he worries about losing everything.
During a recent visit to Florida, incoming claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg told a group of fishing industry representatives to share their expertise to help him craft a fair method for figuring out how to compensate them.
“It’s pretty clear you’re eligible,” he told the group. The hard part would be figuring out how much each commercial fishing operation or charter boat operator is entitled to.
So are some more eligible than others? And which losses will be covered?
Last week, BP said it would be focusing on claims filed by businesses “in close proximity” to the spill, and deferring the rest to Feinberg, who will begin making payments later this month. It remains unclear what “close proximity” means — though it does not seem to include fishing operations along the Florida peninsula.
Feinberg will return to Florida Tuesday, to meet with representatives of affected industries and work toward answers to those questions.
Representatives for Feinberg did not respond to requests for comment, and BP’s press office said it couldn’t answer questions about specific cases.