Filed Under:  Economy, Environmental, Gulf Coast, Health & Wellness, Local, News, Politics, Regional

Community still struggles for say in oil spill recovery

6th May 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Nayita Wilson
The Louisiana Weekly Contributing Writer

One year after the disaster, nonprofit leaders representing environmental agencies that have been actively involved in the BP oil spill clean-up and recovery processes that followed the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Explosion acknowledge consensus around the need for more funding to advance coastal restoration, a desire to see federal regulation surrounding greater accountability for drilling companies and more in depth public health studies.

At a community panel hosted by Unified Nonprofits of Greater New Orleans, representatives from the Sierra Club of New Orleans, the National Wildlife Federation, the Gulf Restoration Network and Environment America recently discussed their immediate response to the oil spill that invaded the Gulf in April 2010 as well as their organizations’ ongoing efforts and challenges.

Aaron Viles, deputy director for the Gulf Restoration Network, which organizes individuals to protect the Gulf Region’s natural resources, recalled a delayed response from the federal government, limited clean-up vessels and a hard-working, yet overwhel­med Coast Guard as a few of many challenges in the wake of the oil spill.

Nowadays, his organization is working to bring attention to the region’s needs, while demanding more regulations from the federal government.

“It’s been a year, and Congress hasn’t passed a single bill regarding this disaster,” Viles said.

The Sierra Club of New Orleans is focusing attention on the oil spill’s impact on public health.

“There has been very little talk about what is going on with the public health issue,” said Jordan Macha, Gulf States representative for Sierra Club of New Orleans. Macha said physicians throughout the affected areas either don’t know how to address the needs or are “unwilling” to speak out because of the oil and gas industry’s stake in the region.

Both Viles and Macha acknowledged health concerns surrounding orange droplets in crab larvae, which, according to Viles, could be a result of the oil and dispersants mixing. Macha said three out of every four crabs taken from the Barataria Bay show traces of the substance. She also noted high levels of hydrocarbons in Gulf shrimp since the spill.

Amanda Moore, senior coastal Louisiana organizer for the National Wildlife Federation, and Heather Emmert, Gulf States organizer for Environment Ameri­ca, also highlighted community organizations’ roles in environmental issues surrounding the BP oil spill.

“In times of crisis and disaster, nonprofits are often the first responders and the ones that stick around for the long haul,” said Lisa Kaichen, President of Unified Nonprofits of Greater New Orleans.

Local leaders found occasion to praise the nonprofit community and acknowledge the sector’s challenges during the Community Perspectives on the Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill panel for the Gulf Coast Leadership Summit, which took place at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside April 19- 21.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said, “I’ve written several letters trying to get funds for nonprofit organizations because they have stepped up,” but to no avail. “So it’s falling on deaf ears,” he said.

Jefferson Parish President John Young said, “I just wanted to thank the nonprofit and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) for what you did because it would have been much worse without your help.”

Prior to the accolades, Nungesser, Young and a cohort of leaders from Louisiana, Alabama and Florida expressed discontent with the federal government’s top-down decision making practice. Those leaders included Commissioner Grover Robinson of Escambia County, Fla., former U.S. Representative Anh Joseph Cao, Louisiana Sen­ator A.G. Crowe and Mayor Tony Kennon of Orange Beach, Ala.

From the regional perspective, the various political divisions in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida created barriers that hindered mobilization in addition to a failure to involve local government in the decision making processes, said Commissioner Grover Robin­son of Escambia County, Fla.

“Despite the fact that we have different political divisions, we’re coming together and are truly working together on behalf of the (Gulf) coast,” he said.

Former U.S. Representative Anh Joseph Cao said the “inability” of decision makers to understand the lives of the Gulf Coast community members is by far the biggest challenge.

Cao said one of the prevailing post-oil spill challenges is determining how the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) will disburse long-term pay-outs to those affected by the spill, as the current formula short changes families by four to five months.

Cao adds that GCCF’s documentation mandates are problematic due the fact that the fishing industry is predominately cash based; further, the request for fishing trip receipts between January and March is unrealistic, as the months aren’t seasonal fishing months.

Byron Encalade, president of both the Louisiana Oystermen Asso­ciation and the South Plaquemines United Fisheries Cooperative, said he expressed his concerns with the claims process to GCCF Admin­istrator Kenneth R. Feinberg during a round table discussion between leaders and stakeholders at the Louisiana Supreme Court last Thursday.

During the meeting, Encalade said he spoke on challenges with the claims process and the need to make it more transparent. He said he believes Feinberg responded well during the meeting, but he remains unconvinced of future change.

“I don’t foresee anything changing. It is what it is, and we just have to battle through this as best we can,” Encalade said, adding that his ultimate desires are to see interim claims paid and overall claims categorized and prioritized.

GCCF recently released a report of activities over the past nine months, including the acknowledgement of paying $398 million worth of claims between April 2010 and August 2010. The document also offers GCCF’s response to some of the most commonly debated issues surrounding restitution for claimants.

According to the report, claimants who would like to contest eligibility have the option of requesting an independent review from the United States Coast Guard. Those claimants who opt for the Final payment option will be paid twice as much of their actual 2010 document losses; the formula will pay four times the actual 2010 documented losses to oyster harvesters and producers.

In addition, GCCF argues that differences in payout and claim amounts “is not a fruitful subject of debate” on account of disparities between claim amounts and actual losses. The report sites two instances where claimants requested $20 billion and $10 billion. Addressing transparency, GCCF says it has posted Final Rules Governing Payment Options, Eligibility and Substantiation Criteria, and Final Payment Methodology to its website.

According to GCCF, since August 2010:

• Approximately 857,000 individuals and 504,000 businesses have filed claims since August 2010.

• GCCF has approved approximately 300,000 claims for payment for about 180,000 eligible individuals and businesses. About $2.6 billion in claims was paid during the Emergency Advance Payment (EAP) period in 2010. In addition, more than $1.2 billion of EAP payments were made to initial claimants and to claimants who filed after the EAP expiration date.

• Approximately 72 percent of the 278,000 claims filed after the EAP period have been processed. “A claim is ‘processed’ when the GCF has made an offer of payment (to which the claimant has 90 days to respond), when the GCCF has made a payment, when the GCCF has sent a notice to the claimant of a deficiency in the proof and documentation submitted to substantiate the claim, or when the GCCF has sent a letter to the claimant denying the claim based on a finding by the GCCF that the claimant is not eligible for any compensation.”

• To date, GCCF payments include $2.6 billion EAP payments, $998,680,000 in Quick Payments $222,183,102 in Final payments.

The full report is available online at www.gulfcoastclaims­facili­ty.com.

This story originally published in the April 25, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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