Recently Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer overseeing the $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility to "make it right" for people harmed by the British Petroleum oil blowout disaster, told a Louisiana House and Senate committee that he had not seen any claims, or any scientific evidence, linking BP's oil and dispersant release to chemical illnesses. Feinberg also stated that chemical illnesses take years to show up — conveniently well after his tenure with the compensation fund.
Instead of tossing the media a juicy bone, Feinberg tossed a red herring. He is wrong at worst, or intentionally misleading at best, on all points.
The GCCF process makes it difficult for people to be compensated for medical claims or even raise illness claims, while making it easy to release claims and rights to future medical care and benefits for chemical illnesses or other medically-proven illness related to the BP blowout and disaster response.
In fact the GCCF process is so blatantly egregious in terms of protecting corporate liability at the expense of human rights and health that a bill was introduced in the Louisiana state legislature, specifically targeting the BP oil disaster, to declare such "contractual releases are invalid as against public policy" and the release of claims to future medical care and related benefits null and void. In Louisiana. BP lobbyists are reportedly out in force, trying to gut the legislation.
Further, the pro-industry bias in the GCCF process turned thousands of people away. Over 130,000-plus claimants have filed lawsuits, now consolidated in Louisiana federal court under Judge Carl Barbier. According to one of the law firms involved, many of these claimants have indicated concerns about health and desire medical monitoring.
Feinberg's downplay of chemical illnesses and other medical issues stemming from the BP oil disaster — with full knowledge of the parallel court proceedings — shows that he and his boss, BP, have no intention of "making it right" for people in the Gulf.
"Not recognizing that there is a problem — that's the problem," said Joey Yerkes, a former Florida cast net fisherman who became sick from chemical exposure while doing cleanup work during summer 2010. He filed a medical illness claim for compensation through the GCCF in early 2011 despite the obstacles. He had to file all his paperwork for medical claims twice because the GCCF employees could not find his initial paperwork. Joey undertook a rigorous treatment under medical care to detoxify his body — but he exhausted his finances before completing treatment. Now he is forced to wait for the BP-controlled GCCF to pay, while his health steadily deteriorates. It's all he can do, he says, "just to chase my 2-year-old daughter around the park when we play."
Unlike Joey Yerkes, Monette Wynne has not filed medical claims through the GCCF. Her entire family — herself, husband, 4-year-old twins, and 6-year-old child — all tested positive for oil in their blood after spending last summer in their seaside home in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. Wynne was so upset about her sick family that she and her husband drove to Atlanta, Georgia, and presented the family's test results to seven toxicologists with the federal agency, Center for Disease Control.
"We were told the levels of oil were of no concern," Wynne said. The federal scientists told them their levels of oil in blood were typical of urban dwellers who breathe traffic exhaust. Wynne didn't believe it — her family's blood work shows they have more oil in their blood than most people, and her family is all sick with symptoms like those of Joey Yerkes — symptoms that became widespread in Gulf communities during summer 2010; symptoms that are not going away. Wynne is considering borrowing money to treat her family. She and her husband had exhausted their savings to buy their dream home, a home that is now for sale.
Unfortunately for Joey Yerkes and the Wynne family — and the legions of other Gulf residents and visitors with similar medical issues from summer 2010, British Petroleum is the "responsible party" for its disaster, but BP is actually responsible, by law, to its shareholders, not the injured people in the Gulf. This inherent conflict of interest means Feinberg is nothing more than a well-paid sock puppet for BP. He can be expected to act to minimize liability and financial damages for the "responsible party" by covering up the chemical illness epidemic in the Gulf.
Further, the federal laws and regulations designed to protect public health, worker safety, and the environment from oil and chemical poisoning are so riddled with exemptions that they cannot deliver their promise of protection — as people near oil drilling and hydrologic fracturing ("fracking") operations have discovered. Social documentaries such as Gaslands and Split Estate exposed chemical illnesses and symptoms similar to the Gulf injuries and independent studies documented groundwater contamination, but the federal government still denies there is a problem.
Similarly, the federal government is also in denial about the horrific-and-federally-sanctioned poisoning of the Gulf people and wildlife, despite prior and post knowledge of the extent of contamination and the health impacts of oil and chemicals used to drill or disperse oil.
As Joey pointed out, denial of the problem is the problem. At the root of the issue of oil and chemical poisoning in the Gulf and elsewhere in America lies the problem of corporate constitutional rights — transnational corporations claiming human rights. The challenge for all Americans is to reclaim our democracy and end corporate rule.
Activist and author Riki Ott is attending the Democracy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin, August 24-28, hosted by the grassroots coalition MoveToAmend. To learn more about what happened in the Gulf, and people and communities are doing to reclaim democracy and end corporate rule, visit www.changingtheendgame.org.
Riki Ott is author of the book