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Obama administration official faces complaints over handling of oil spill claims

ST. PETERSBURG — Business people in the Tampa Bay area who filed claims for the losses they have faced during the Deepwater Horizon disaster say they are being turned down by BP's adjuster.

The reason: None of the oil ever hit this area's beaches.

The fact that tourism and seafood consumption have dropped in this region as a result of public perceptions about the spill apparently doesn't matter, according to business people who met Friday with White House energy and environment adviser Carol Browner.

"I can show them how we're down from last year," said Patricia Hubbard, whose family founded John's Pass Village and now runs fishing boats, a restaurant and other operations. "I need someone bigger and stronger than BP to tell them that there is damage."

Without some help soon, she said, "we won't be here."

Robin Grabowski, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, said members of her group have reported similar rejections. She said one beach landlord who couldn't find a single renter this summer was told, "We will not be paying your claim as of now because there's no oil on your beach."

Meanwhile, she said, some beach businesses "are only weeks or months away from closing" because of how badly the spill has hurt tourism throughout the state.

The small, mom-and-pop operations have been hurt the worst, she said. But the big ones have not escaped unharmed.

"We've had to lay off well over 100 employees, largely due to the oil spill," said Keith Overton, chief operating officer of TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach. "The claims process right now is a mess."

Browner, a Miami native, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, both promised that the arrival of the new oil spill claims czar, Ken Feinberg, would soon put everything right.

BP vice president Ray Dempsey, while pointing out that he is not in charge of paying claims, said "there is a transition that is under way" to hand over responsibility to Feinberg, who previously oversaw payments to Sept. 11 victims and their families.

Last week, Feinberg told a town hall meeting in Alabama that he hopes to begin writing checks within a month. The money will come from an escrow account created when BP, under pressure from the White House, agreed to pay $5 billion a year over the next four years to cover spill-related damages.

Feinberg has said he plans to fire ESIS, the claims adjustment company that BP employed to vet the claims being filed as a result of the April 20 oil rig explosion and spill, and instead hire two other companies to assist him. He declined to say why.

At the Alabama town-hall gathering, Feinberg said businesses that lost money because fewer customers were drawn to the beach may get only a percentage of their lost revenue. But that's better than trying to sue BP, he said, because such suits would probably fail.

"You may decide that 10 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent is better than no percent," Feinberg told the crowd.

Browner faced more than economic complaints at her meeting with community leaders at the Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg. Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club and Darden Rice of the Gulf Restoration Network both criticized comments Browner made earlier this week that hailed a new scientific report as showing that "the vast majority of the oil is gone."

Actually the report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of the Interior — some of which turned out to be based on previously untried calculations and computer modeling — showed about half the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil was still unaccounted for. It's just that it wasn't floating on the surface of the gulf.

"It almost seemed like if the oil was out of sight, it was out of mind," Rice said.

Browner, without apologizing for her previous comment, contended that the White House had unveiled the report this week in the interest of transparent government, period. She said it was not an attempt to skew scientific findings just to get some positive press for the Obama Administration, which has faced repeated criticism for its handling of the disaster.

"No one's trying to oversell or undersell anything," she insisted. Browner added that the White House is not trying to make everyone forget about the oil spill so it can move on. "We are in this for the long haul."

Other leaders who attended Browner's roundtable discussion were University of South Florida marine science dean William Hogarth; state Rep. Darryl Rouson; St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster; Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater executive director D.T. Minich; Susan Glickman from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy; Watson Haynes, former chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District; and Crabby Bill's CEO Matt Loder.

Information from the Mobile Press Register was used in this report.

Share your story

Have you filed a claim with BP? Gotten a check? Been told you provided insufficient documentation? If so, the St. Petersburg Times and the investigative newsroom ProPublica want to hear about your experience. Go to propublica.org/claims.

Obama administration official faces complaints over handling of oil spill claims 08/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 6, 2010 10:05pm]
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