Fishermen-turned-skimmers deal with complexities of oil spill cleanup and claims forms

Alejandro de los Rios Aug. 10, 2010, 9:40am

A sign at the Bridgeside Marina on Grand Isle advertises the catch of the day.

With news that BP was sealing its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, conflicting reports have come out of Grand Isle about the oil company's efforts to scale down cleanup.

BP's claims system came under scrutiny during the beginning of the oil spill, when reports indicated the company was turning away applicants who didn't have proper tax identification.

After relaxing their rules to accommodate fishermen who work cash-only, BP spokesman Curtis Thomas now says the company would begin asking for more documentation.

"If you've received claims for the last two months and provided little documentation, we're still going to honor that claim," he said. "But from now on we're asking for documentation for income that you've lost, we're asking for more proof."

BP has said that it has paid more than $300 million in oil spill claims to more than 40,000 businesses and individuals.

The news that the claim system may become harder has had a mix reception on Grand Isle, a small southern-Louisiana beach community that has been hit hard -- the normally busy summer months has seen business come to a stand still.

Buggy Vegas, the owner of the Bridgeside Marina on Grand Isle, said that it was a relief to hear that the well was plugged, but "the oil is still out there" and now he's dealing with a more difficult claims process.

"June, July and August is when we make the load of our money," Vegas said. "They're trying to give us half of what we make."

Vegas said that his marina has been lucky, but others haven't and he could be heard consoling his brother-in-law on the phone saying, "Hang in there, it won't be long."

The news of a stricter claims process comes at the same time of reports that BP will be scaling down its "Vessels of Opportunity" program, which employed out-of-work fisherman as oil skimmers. Vegas said that BP is "trying to disappear slowly" and on July 30, incoming BP CEO Bob Dudley said it was time to "scale back" cleanup efforts.

But, Thomas didn't go that far.

"We're not concentrating on scaling down yet," he said. "We're looking on having the right-sized operation."

Fishermen who lost their jobs because of the spill are depending on employment from BP to make it through the season, Vegas said.

"They're making more money skimming than they ever had," he said.

Vegas said that BP was hiring fishermen because it would allow them to pay them less in damage claims.

Thomas confirmed that fishermen who worked as skimmers would have that income deducted from their claims.

But on top of receiving more scrutiny for the claims they're filing with BP, fishermen and cleanup workers are also facing scrutiny in the form of drug tests.

Vegas said that at least 50 workers in Grand Isle turned in their badges rather than submit to a drug test.

Thomas said that reports that BP was administering the tests were false.

"We don't do that," he said. "Some of our contractors drug test and do background checks. We don't regulate that process but we approve of that process."

A representative at ES&H, one of BP's main contractors in Louisiana, did not immediately return calls for comment.

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