10,000 Holes

This is excerpted from 10,000 Holes, by Mayor Tony Kennan, about the real effects of the BP gulf oil spill on ground zero. Mr. Kennon is the 1st-person narrator. This book is not yet in print.

“Mayor, sometimes bad things happen to good people.”  That was the first thing out of Ken Feinberg’s mouth at my first meeting with him, on June 28th. I knew we were in trouble right then. He made it sound as though this massive oil spill was just a bad roll of the dice, an act of God, or even an understandable mistake.

This didn’t just “happen” and the good Lord had nothing to do with this. If He had, I could live with it. We would pull together, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and we’d do the best we could. But this was a man-made disaster. More specifically, it was British Petroleum-made disaster. It was also entirely avoidable.

The point of the $20 billion escrow fund was to avoid protracted litigation and court battles.  The entire claims process was to be handled by a disinterested third party, to be approved by both the government and BP.
Ken Feinberg was the person selected to handle the newly formed Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF). He was a reasonable choice. His resume was impressive and appropriate. He was a former prosecutor who had been chief of staff to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a member of two presidential commissions, and a former adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and New York University. He was also somewhat familiar with the process of paying compensations. He had administered them for the Virginia Tech shooting massacre and for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So he was a good man for the job.

“Mayor, there’s not enough money in the whole world to make you whole,” was the next thing out of his mouth.

I said, “Mr. Feinberg, does that mean, then, that you’re changing the rules?”

“No, I’m not changing any rules. There’s just not enough money in the whole world to make you whole.” I tried to see that as a good sign. I tried to think he was at least acknowledging that we had lost more than money, we had lost things we could never get back.

“So, Mr. Feinberg, are you saying that BP is lying? Because right now there are TV commercials and newspaper ads and every other kind of imaginable public relations movement to convince everyone that British Petroleum is making us whole.”

“Well, that’s just not gonna happen.” The rest of the meeting did not go much better. From the very beginning, it seemed to me that Mr. Feinberg had a total disdain for who we are down here in the South. He saw us as nothing more than helpless victims begging for a handout. Scammers, cheats, thieves. He thought he was the Claims Czar and we were just gonna roll over and allow him to do as he wished, without questioning him or his authority or his decisions. That’s just not who we are.

I think Ken Feinberg was there partially to act as a shield for BP. British Petroleum in the beginning was paying out significant amounts of money while they were telling the whole world that they were gonna make us whole. But what they realized was, it was going to cost them a whole lot more to make us whole than they expected. So, they set Mr. Feinberg up to be the bad guy, the one who was limiting or refusing claims, not BP, and they could continue to go about their PR campaign about making us whole.

I think Mr. Feinberg took it very personally that we called him a shield for BP. He went to several different individuals to get letters and opinions that he was not, that he was an independent agent. But I do not understand how a man can be fair and impartial when his company is being paid $1.25 million a month by one of the involved parties.

Judge Barbier, the federal judge in New Orleans who was assigned to handle all the cases associated with the spill and who is independent of all parties, said, “No, Mr. Feinberg, you’re not independent of BP, and you can no longer continue to tell your claimants you’re independent of BP.”

“So, Mr. Feinberg, you’re going to decide who the winners and losers are.”

“Oh no, no, the law is going to do that.”

“Mr. Feinberg, the law’s not involved here.” In his book, Who Gets What, Mr. Feinberg even states that this whole claims process as a private agreement between BP and the people of Orange Beach, brokered by the president of the United States. So, then, how could he right away start throwing out terms like proximity and causation? How can he define eligibility based on the Oil Pollution Act and state statutes?

This was a private deal; none of those things mattered. All that mattered was, did I lose a dollar because of British Petroleum’s oil spill? And if I did lose a dollar, then to be made whole, I need to be compensated a dollar. It’s just that simple. Don’t make this difficult. All you need is a tax return from the last few years.

By Mr. Feinberg’s standards, which were based on the Oil Pollution Act, if oil was not on your property, if oil didn’t wash up in your yard, you had no claim. Well, Mr. Feinberg, that’s an absurdity. Everyone on this island – everyone close to this island – depends on tourist dollars. We tried many times to explain to Mr. Feinberg about how the tourism industry functions. We painted this picture in every way we possibly could for Mr. Feinberg. But he could not see it. He did not care to see it.