- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Gulf of Mexico could be largely recovered from the effects of the massive BP oil spill by 2014, the Obama administration’s point man in charge of the firm’s $20 billion victims’ compensation fund said Wednesday.

“We have concluded that a two- to three-year gradual recovery period seems reasonable in light of all information available,” said Kenneth Feinberg, the Boston lawyer chosen by the White House and BP to oversee the Gulf Coast Compensation Fund (GCCF). “But predicting the future of the Gulf is not an exact science.”

Mr. Feinberg made his remarks following the release Wednesday of a new report that included a more optimistic assessment of the Gulf’s environmental recovery and outlined a proposed new methodology for calculating claims for individuals and businesses along the coast.

The report, based in large part on work done by Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist at Texas A&M’s Harte Research Institute in Corpus Christi, lays out for the first time a methodology for calculating final settlements for those whose livelihoods have been harmed by last year’s unprecedented spill.

But the new protocols aren’t likely to sit well with Gulf officials and residents who have complained repeatedly that BP and Mr. Feinberg, who was appointed to serve as an independent arbiter for the compensation fund, have made the claims process too cumbersome.

Chief among those critics is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who one day earlier asked a federal judge in Baton Rouge, La., to step in and address the state’s growing frustration with BP and Mr. Feinberg.

The Republican governor asked the court to end requirements that claimants seeking a final settlement first sign waivers designed to protect BP from future claims related to last April’s Deepwater Horizon explosion and its aftermath.

“It’s clear that the process remains unfair to claimants, many of whom are now having their claims denied or delayed because of confusing and intense documentation requirements,” Mr. Jindal said.

Some local resident were more pointed in their criticism

“He’s asking people to sign away their rights for basically peanuts. I don’t see anyone accepting this,” Louisiana fishing guide Mike Helmer told the Associated Press. “This is an insult. This is unbelievable. It’s a joke.”

Under the new protocol, documentation requirements would be even “more rigorous and exacting,” according to the GCCF report released Wednesday.

Mr. Feinberg said the claims process isn’t perfect, but is working.

“There is obviously some unknown risk in attempting to determine any recovery period. Nobody is required to take a final payment. If people think I am wrong, I urge them to opt for the interim payment,” he said.

The fund, set up in August, has so far paid an estimated $3.3 billion to 168,000 residents, fisherman and business owners, but Mr. Feinberg has faced repeated criticism that the payment process is too slow and too protective of BP’s interests. About half of the almost 500,000 claims filed have been denied because of ineligibility or lack of documentation.

Under the proposed new methodology, claimants who seek a final settlement will receive the equivalent of two years of compensation based on their 2010 damages. The formula calls for a bigger settlement for the oyster industry, which is still struggling to recover.

In the report, Mr. Tunnell predicted that fish, crab and shrimp harvests would return to pre-spill levels by 2012. He also predicted that oyster beds in the area could take six to 10 years to recover.

According to the Associated Press, Mr. Feinberg’s law firm is being paid $850,000 a month for its work administering the fund.