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Gulf Coast Residents Outraged that Money Earned on Cleanup Might Be Subtracted from $20 Billion Claim Fund

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Gulf Coast residents are outraged by a recent announcement that the $20 billion government-administered claim fund will subtract money cleanup workers earn by working for the cleanup effort from any future claims. Fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg says the ruling will apply to anyone who participates in the Vessels of Opportunity program, which has employed hundreds of Gulf Coast residents left out of work because of the spill. It’s seen as an effort to limit the number of lawsuits against BP. We speak with independent journalist Dahr Jamail. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We want to also bring in Dahr Jamail. He’s an independent journalist who’s been reporting from the Gulf Coast for the past three weeks.

Dahr, you’re joining us from Tampa, Florida, right now. You just drove along the Gulf Coast. But talk about this dispersant, as well. You wrote in article about the effect it had on you personally.

DAHR JAMAIL: Right. About a week and a half ago, my partner and I were down in Barataria talking with shrimpers and fishermen and people affected by the oil disaster. And literally within minutes of driving down there, the air was so chemically laden, you could smell and taste chemicals in the air. And immediately, our eyes began to burn. And everyone that we were talking with there, Tracy Kuhns with the shrimpers’ union, Clint Guidry on the board of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, and their spouses and everyone else that we spoke with down there, everyone was complaining of different kinds of health problems — headaches, which, actually, again, within minutes, I personally was starting to experience that; shortness of breath; nausea — all kinds of different symptoms, which I then went home and started to educate myself on the immediate and then longer-term effects of the two Corexit dispersants being used and realized that myself and everyone that we spoke with down there were basically having onset of these symptoms, and people were suffering from it very much.

And another very disturbing thing that I saw down there was I met a charter fisherman named Gene Hickman, who showed me a video he had taken two days prior to my arrival there. He was outside of his house at night, and he had a video of, literally, crabs crawling out of the water at night onto his bulkhead to escape the water. And Tracy Kuhns, who I was also speaking with, said, “Look, we’ve been watching regularly these huge plumes of dispersant under the surface of the water coming into our canals, sometimes bubbling up to the surface. We’ve seen marine life fleeing from these.” And there have been some reports of this happening throughout the Gulf. But then, I went down to Gene Hickman’s house and then saw, just minutes after watching this video of crabs literally crawling out of the water trying to escape from the water, to see basically crabs floating belly up in the water, dead, all in his canal. There was sheen over the top of it, dead fish. And again, the stench of the chemicals was so intense that our eyes were watering.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahr Jamail, your piece in Truthout is called “BP’s Scheme to Swindle the 'Small People.'” What is that scheme?

DAHR JAMAIL: Right. Well, the scheme is — let’s be really clear, Amy. We all know that context for news reporting is key. And Kenneth Feinberg, who is the Obama-appointed individual in charge of this $20 billion compensation fund for victims of the BP oil disaster, who is he being paid by? He is being paid by BP to do this job. When he was asked recently, just in the last forty-eight hours, how much he’s being paid, he said, “That’s between me and British Petroleum.” So let’s be — let’s start right there.

And then, to move forward, this story came up because I was talking with Clint Guidry, who I just mentioned, and he was, like all the other fishermen, outraged by how this fund is being handled. And how it’s being handled is that these people who join this so-called Vessels of Opportunity program, which are basically fishermen who are now completely put out of work, the shrimping and the fishing industry in Louisiana — and this is spreading across the coast along with the oil, as it travels across the coast — is completely shut down, so these people are forced in to do this work, going out skimming, putting out oil boom, other types of recovery efforts for BP, because it’s literally the only way they can make a living now. And so, Feinberg then recently announces, last Friday, as you reported, that, “No, actually now all the money that you’re earning, you folks in the Vessels for Opportunity program, any future compensation claims that you make, this money will be deducted from that claim.”

And so, upon further investigation, it turns out there’s a lawyer in Louisiana named Stephen Herman, and his firm, back on May 2nd, had an email correspondence with a law firm representing BP. And he questioned this very thing, because it had first come up way back at the beginning of this disaster when people were going and looking into joining the Vessels for Opportunity program, but before they could join, they were going to be asked to sign a waiver. Well, this was of course then brought — Stephen Herman brought this to the attention of the BP lawyer, questioned it, challenged it. And then the BP lawyer wrote back and said, “That is not going to happen. We’re going to tear up those claims. We’re not going to do that.”

Stephen Herman also questioned BP’s lawyer as to this very thing that we just saw Feinberg do, which was, “I want to make very clear,” said Herman, “that any of this work, any of the payment for the work these folks do, will not later be taken out of claims that they may make for future compensation for loss of livelihood, etc.” And he was told at that time in a response on May 3rd by BP’s lawyer, “Absolutely, that will not happen. That is BP’s stated position.” And so, then we have Feinberg come out Monday, and every day since then, acting as basically a BP salesman trying to push this new agenda that you have to file your claim within a year, and then, once you do that, you’ll get paid, and you will not file any further claims. And then, of course, any work that you’ve done in this Vessels for Opportunity program, any of that money will be deducted from any future claims. So this directly contradicts what BP said to Stephen Herman’s law firm in New Orleans back on May 3rd. And again, we have Kenneth Feinberg running around, clearly accountable to BP, clearly working in the interests of BP, and as he’s being accused by Clint Guidry and basically fishermen up and down the Gulf Coast at this point in the Vessels for Opportunity program, is that this a guy who’s doing nothing but working to try to limit BP’s long-term liability for this disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahr Jamail, we want to thank you very much for being with us, independent journalist. His latest piece in Truthout is called “BP’s Scheme to Swindle the 'Small People.'” Special thanks to WEDU, PBS in Tampa. Florida, where he is speaking to us from.

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