Five months after unleashing the worst oil spill in U.S. history, BP's broken well in the Gulf of Mexico was declared "effectively dead" Sunday. Residents of the Gulf Coast who lost their incomes and livelihoods after an estimated 206 million gallons of oil tarred the waters, beaches and fishing grounds must be relieved. But there is much more work to do to rebuild these communities, repair the ecological damage to the gulf and to make offshore drilling safer.
Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who oversaw the response to the oil spill, and President Barack Obama both hailed the moment but also underscored that the recovery effort will be a long-term process. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has reformed the agency that oversees drilling to give regulators more teeth. But the administration needs to keep its temporary ban on deepwater drilling in place until energy companies adopt safer practices. The administration also needs to be open in the coming months to any recommendations from the national panel investigating the accident.
The administrator of BP's $20 billion fund for victims of the oil spill sent a positive signal last week to businesses in Florida. Kenneth Feinberg softened his insistence that compensation for lost incomes would be based on a business' "proximity" to the spill. So narrow a reading of the spill's impact could leave thousands of Florida hotels, restaurants and other businesses tied to tourism and fishing out in the cold.
Feinberg gave no promises after meeting in Orlando with representatives of the state's hotel and restaurant industry. But he said he was more open to accept that Florida lost business even in places where oil did not wash ashore. Feinberg said he needed to balance concerns over fraud with the responsibility to help those entitled to recover damages from BP. "If I say no," he said, "what have I done but drive you into the court system?"
The point of the having BP turn its compensation funds over to an independent administrator is to get payments to people who deserve them and spare an avalanche of lawsuits from clogging the courts. Feinberg has an obligation to weed out fraudulent claims. He also needs to realize that the geography of the spill is not the geography of its impact.
State officials need to keep the recovery effort on the radar. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink was right last week to push the Florida Cabinet to urge Feinberg to pick up the pace. That unified effort across party lines could mean the difference for cash-strapped Floridians recovering across the Panhandle. Feinberg seems committed to making the claims process fair and speedy. But Florida is only now seeing a fuller picture of the long-term impact of the spill. The well may be dead, but oil still pollutes some 116 miles of Florida shoreline. The damage has been far and wide — and the compensation needs to be, too.