BP grossly misstated the amount of oil spewing from its collapsed rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It stalled in providing a live camera feed of the broken pipe gushing oil a mile beneath the sea surface. It misled the nation about how well its latest attempt was going to plug the runaway well. Five weeks after this disaster started, there still is a surprise around every corner.
This is the company the nation should trust to process claims for damages to incomes and property? The government needs to take over the claims process and send BP the bill.
It is hard enough to accept that the company responsible for the spill is also the one the government had to rely upon to try to plug the pipe and launch the cleanup effort. But letting BP also control the claims process is a gross conflict of interest affecting individual lives.
Fishermen, suppliers and tourism workers harmed by BP's environmental damage need money coming in the door, and they need it fast to pay the mortgage and other monthly bills. These residents need a clear, fair process and a trusted claims processor.
BP contends it has built a wall by hiring a third-party claims administrator. But that firm, ESIS, still works for BP. And the company's mission statement — to "reduce (the client's) total cost of loss" — hardly inspires public confidence. While BP has paid out $36 million in interim claims, many to fishermen for lost wages, those are largely cash advances to cover lost income for a single month.
Long-term compensation, as clearly some individuals will deserve, will require more documentation — something BP's vendor won't necessarily be interested in making easy for victims to submit or collect. BP said last week it would hire an independent firm to mediate disputes over claims. But again, the company at fault is hiring the referee.
This is where government needs to step in and help victims file their claims. Nearly every document BP will look for to substantiate a claim is a government record already tucked into a government database. Tax returns, business licenses, Social Security numbers, picture IDs, boat and commercial gear registrations, property records — all these documents are held by government agencies.
Government officials are already performing this task on an ad-hoc basis. U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao of New Orleans is helping constituents navigate the BP claims regimen. In Florida, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink has called on Washington to take control of claims against BP. Her department is helping residents and businesses document their losses. But many residents may also need public assistance to ride out the damage, and there needs to be a one-stop shop to process these applications. If the federal government is looking for a better way to show leadership, here it is.