BP Gulf of Mexico spill deal gives new claims hope
A settlement being hammered out between BP and victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill finally provides a system for monitoring health concerns and compensating people with illnesses linked to the disaster.
Government and university doctors have not found significant evidence of spill-related illnesses, but problems years from now remain a question mark.
Gulf Coast residents say they are happy their complaints are getting a serious look, even if they will face hurdles in proving that rashes, shortness of breath and other maladies were caused by the oil or chemical dispersants sprayed to break up the April 2010 spill off Louisiana.
Under the settlement announced on Friday, the British oil giant said it expected to pay out 7.8 billion dollars (£4.9bn)to settle a wide range of claims that also include property damage, lost wages and losses to businesses.
While a previously-created fund had already been paying such economic loss claims, it had not paid claims over illnesses related to exposure.
Nicole Maurer, of the fishing community of Bootheville, who blames the spill for a number of her family's health problems, said last night: "Bright and early, I'm getting my kids on the school bus and calling my lawyer tomorrow, and see what's going on."
"I'm being very hopeful and that it all works out in our favour."
Mrs Maurer said she had developed cysts on her body since the spill, while her fisherman husband suffered bleeding from his ear and nose since doing clean-up work. The couple also believe their daughter's asthma has become worse.
First, Mrs Maurer and others like her will have to show that they became ill from the spill. To receive compensation, claimants will be examined by a court-approved healthcare practitioner. Then, a claims administrator working under the supervision of a federal judge will determine who should be paid.
The settlement also establishes a programme to monitor claimants' health for a period of 21 years. People whose physical symptoms have not yet developed will also be able to pursue claims.
BP has also promised to pay 105 million dollars (£66.4bn) to improve healthcare around the Gulf region.
"You don't know what the long-term (health) effects will be," said another plaintiffs' lawyer, Steve Herman. "You don't know how the science is going to play out."
Mr Herman said medical claims would not be paid until US District Judge Carl Barbier gave final approval to the overall settlement, which could take months.
Observers said the legal wrangling over who was eligible for medical compensation would be contentious and could take years.
Blaine LeCesne, a tort law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said getting medical claims covered under the proposed settlement was a victory for the plaintiffs.
At a trial, he said it would have been difficult to prove medical damage.
"Medical claims are inherently speculative. We really don't know what the full scope of the medical problems are to exposure to the dispersants and the oil itself," he said.
How much BP will be forced to pay will depend on the criteria for verifying health problems, he said.
Mitch Crusto, a Loyola business and environmental law professor, said it was a smart move for BP. "It helps give the impression that BP is a responsible company," he said.
The previous compensation fund, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, received about 200 claims asserting spill-related illnesses, but none was paid. The older fund covered injured rig workers on the Deepwater Horizon, the drilling rig which exploded, killing 11 workers.
Government and university researchers have been investigating public health complaints, but so far have not found significant evidence of illnesses caused by the spill. however, some warned that their work had only just begun.
Studies by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Health Sciences are in their early stages, according to a researcher involved.
"We are trying to pinpoint exposure and unravel those complex questions," said Maureen Litchveld, a lead researcher at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
"Two of the most persistent concerns are those about seafood safety and if the air is safe to breathe."
Some doctors along the coast say they routinely treat clean-up workers and residents for chemical exposure and other problems that they blame on the spill.
Dr Mike Robichaux, a nose and throat specialist in Raceland, said he had treated 50 people for a range of health problems that he believes were caused by exposure to chemicals released during the disaster.
"The illnesses are very real, and the people who are ill are apparently people who have sensitivities to these substances that not all of us are sensitive to," he said.
BP employed thousands of fishermen and other locals to respond to the oil spill, and scores have expressed health concerns. Many of those people can be found along the sliver of land south of New Orleans in the fishing and oilfield communities of Plaquemines Parish.
Glen Swift, a fisherman in Buras, said he worked on clean-up boats and became sick one day cleaning a big patch of oil.
"I got nauseated, just real weak and sick with diarrhoea for a few days," he said. Mr Swift said he was not sure if he would file a medical claim.
More serious were the complaints of the Maurer household in Bootheville.