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Bayou Tribes Want Payback from BP

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Louisiana’s American Indian fishing tribes were already financially struggling from social change and coastal erosion, reported the Associated Press, when a BP well spewed an estimated 206 million gallons of crude oil into Gulf waters beginning in April 2010. Now, fishermen linger in abated hope for lost-income reimbursement from a visiting claims czar, as the East Coast lawyer Kenneth Feinberg has come to be known. Feinberg met with bayou fishermen—including tribal members who live entirely off of marsh resources—for the first time in January 2011 to discuss the allocation of the company’s $20 billion compensation fund, stated the AP. But tribes want more than payment for lost wages; they want restitution for the oil giant squelching their way of life.

“With the oil, how long will it last? Oil isn’t like a hurricane,” said Thomas Dardar Jr., principal chief of the United Houma Nation, the state’s largest Indian tribe with about 17,000 tribal citizens, to the AP. “You can’t just pick up after it’s over. The Indians in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez incident tell us they’ve been dealing with the oil for 20 years.”

And if the Exxon Valdez aftermath is any indication, victims of the BP oil spill will not get their due payback. “[If] you were affected in Louisiana, to use a legal term, you are just f—ked,” said Brian O’Neill, an attorney with the firm Faegre & Benson, who represented fishermen in civil cases related to the Exxon Valdez spill, reported Sam Stein of the Huffington Post.

Claimants argue that Feinberg’s recently published estimates of future damage to bayou residents are too hopeful, meaning final settlement compensation offers are too low, reported The New York Times. Meanwhile, BP contends his estimates are overblown. The company projects settlements should run between 25 to 50 percent of a claimant’s 2010 losses. At his January meeting, Feinberg promised Indians “subsistence claims”—payment for the value seafood plays in their culture and lives. “It’s a claim that my lifestyle has been adversely impacted by my inability to any longer live off the resources that I hunt or catch,” Feinberg said, according to the AP. “What I could go hunt or fish I now have to go buy. Those claims should be paid.”

The approximately 20,000 American Indians who lived off the coastal marsh, including Houma, Chitimacha, Choctaw and Biloxi tribes, among others, recruited a New York City lawyer in fear they would not be compensated fairly, reported the AP. But O’Neill thinks their fate will inevitably echo the plight of fisherman in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Just like BP, Exxon in 1989 vowed to cover all cleanup costs and legitimate claims, reported Stein of the Post. After two decades of court battles, punitive damages were reduced from $5 billion to $500 million. “This is more important than banks,” O’Neill told the Post’s Stein. “This is oil. And at some point in time, the administration and the states will resolve all their dealings and it will leave fisherman and the tourist industry to resolve their differences in the courts. It could be another 20 years till then because BP [is] going to defend this like Exxon did.” 0