Who Decides if a BP Spill Claim Is Legitimate?

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Hans Deryk / Reuters

Idle shrimp boats float at the docks of Joshua's Marina in Buras, La.

Legitimate. It's the word that could come to define the extremely expensive, extremely litigious aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Almost from the beginning, BP has promised to pay what it calls all "legitimate" claims by people and businesses affected by the spill. But legitimate, when it's contained in a print ad as part of BP's new multimillion-dollar campaign or poshly pronounced by CEO Tony Hayward in one of the accompanying TV commercials, sounds very different from the way it sounds coming out of the mouth of a bayou shrimper in Venice, La. What constitutes legitimate is still an open question.

At the very least though, it looks like BP won't be the only one who gets to decide. A day after demanding that the company turn over data about its financial-claim payment process, the Coast Guard reported that BP had pledged to expedite payment to affected businesses in the Gulf. "BP recognized that its previous approach of waiting until after the books have closed for each month to calculate losses will not work," Tracy Wareing of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said at a news conference Thursday. "It won't get dollars quickly enough to the businesses that are struggling on the ground."

And reports are filtering back from Louisiana that BP's lost oil seems to be flowing a lot faster than its cash. David Camardelle, the mayor of Grand Isle in southeastern Louisiana, told a hearing of a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that he knew of 37 applications from his community still waiting for their $5,000 claims check from BP. "Every day, I have a mom that comes in front of me and asks me, 'Mr. David, how am I going to get food for my kids,'" Camardelle said. "Please, please send us some help."

BP has said that it has already paid over $80 million in claims to more than 10,000 individuals in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, with more coming soon. The company also says that it has opened scores of claims centers around the affected coastline, and that it is trying to process claims in a few days at most. "We'll do this until it's finished," said Darryl Willis, vice president of resources for BP America, in a teleconference with reporters over the weekend.

To aid the company in speeding the payment process, Alabama is considering assigning National Guard troops to work at claims centers — a uniquely effective lever only the government can use. But the very nature of how many people work on the Gulf Coast is going to trump the number that will be answering phones and processing documents. And the very nature of the fishing industry won't help either. Fishing can bring in a lot of money in a very short period of time during the right season, but fishermen might be hard-pressed to provide evidence — bank statements, pay stubs — that can back that up. The same goes for many other businesses: if receipts are dwindling at a restaurant, or guests are cancelling at a resort, how is it possible to prove that the spill alone is responsible? "We're stuck in the middle," says Chris Camardelle, whose seafood restaurant in Grand Isle has been badly hurt by the oil spill. "So it's a tricky situation."

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