Gulf residents debate whether to get compensation from BP

A shrimp boat in Biloxi Bay.

Tess Vigeland: This week marks one year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It killed 11 workers. And over several months leaked millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf. Under an agreement with the U.S. government, BP set up a $20 billion compensation fund for coastal residents whose livelihoods were endangered by the spill. Anyone who accepted a settlement offer gave up the right to sue.

Marketplace's Eve Troeh recently returned to the Gulf to explore how some locals wrestled with that decision.


Eve Troeh: Driving down to Venice, La., you can't miss the billboards and signs: "Oil spill claim too low? Call us!" The closer you get to the Gulf, the more there are. I'm here to meet fishing tour guide Susan Gros, who runs...

Susan Gros: Reel Louisiana Adventures.

Her business dried up after the spill. I ask if she called that billboard number. No, she says. Didn't even think about it. She says she'll tell me her spill story later. Right now, she wants to fish.

Sound of boat motor

We head out on a 22-foot skeeter with boat captain Buddy Bergeron.

Buddy Bergeron: Our strategy is we're gonna get right up on this point and we're going to cast over...

We cast out and hit a run of huge redfish.

Gros: Oh shoot! That's the sound I like to hear!

I set down the microphone to help.

Gros: And we are live as Eve fights a redfish. Now use your rod and drive him back that way.

Our catch is barely in the ice chest.

Gros: We're in the box!

...When Susan gets another one.

Sound of fishing reel

Gros: Today we're going to make up for lost time.

This is her first fishing trip in a year. Before the oil spill, she was on the water three times a week. But after:

Gros: The phone stopped ringing.

Now, she's land-locked most days, at a retail job.

Gros: In a very large store, in the garden center.

When BP began the first round of final payouts she said to herself:

Gros: "Do I wait for a larger settlement, or do I take my sanity?" And the sanity won out.

She took $25,000.

Gros: I wanted to move on with my life.

BP has based all settlements on science that says the Gulf will be back to normal in another year. Susan Gros isn't sure of that. Few people down here are. But she took the check, and gave up her right to sue for more.

Bergeron: I'm gonna cut it again...

Our boat captain Buddy Bergeron cleans the catch with an electric knife.

Bergeron: Look at that filet, how pretty.

After the spill, he did what a lot of boat captains here did. He went to work for BP. They needed locals like him who know the serpentine coastline. He hunted for oil slicks and ferried officials, up until last month. Now he's back to fishing, but bookings are down. Bergeron's still deciding whether to take a BP settlement. He says the oil still in the water, or dispersant used to break it up, could hurt things down the line and sink his career.

Bergeron: Just because of an oil spill, I don't feel like I should want to have to change careers now. And if I did, I would think that they should be responsible for that.

About 150 miles east, in Biloxi, Miss., shrimp boats pack the harbor. Veteran boat captain Rodney Willis walks the docks, nervous about the new season.

Rodney Willis: You'll see baby shrimp swimming around the pilings, and I haven't seen any of that this winter.

Seafood is testing fine now, but in Alaska, the herring catch collapsed four years after the Valdez spill.

Willis: And that was what, one-tenth what we had in the Gulf, as far as oil.

Willis used to be captain on a boat that caught small silver fish, the kind in fish oil capsules.

Willis: Oh yes, I take 'em myself. Keep the cholesterol down...

But his anxiety is up. After the spill, Willis' company took his boat off the water, and put him in a much lower-paying job. Willis asked BP to make up the wage gap, sent tax returns to back it up. BP's final offer is $5,000, total.

Willis: I know people that's in my same position that's gotten twice as much as me, even three and four times more than I have.

John Joplin: Very recognizable, I'm very concerned.

John Joplin scans the claim. He's a lawyer at the nonprofit Mississippi Center for Justice, a legal aid group.

Joplin: Given the uncertainty about the type of living a fisherman could make in the Gulf of Mexico over the next several years, it's hard to imagine that $5,000 is adequate compensation.

It's hard to imagine what would be adequate, says Rodney Willis, given all the conflicting science and opinions.

Willis: If you take a final claim you're just taking a shot in the dark, really.

But lawsuits are a shot in the dark, too. And, they could take decades. Willis says for most people along the Gulf, the decision to settle with BP is based on necessity, not what they believe.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace Money.


Vigeland: You can read more about Eve's fishing trip at our blog, Makin' Money.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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