WASHINGTON — “You have my word we will make you whole again,” Exxon executive Don Cornett told the victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska 21 years ago.
More than two decades of legal wrangling and stalling later, the final settlement checks were written. At least 6,000 of the original 32,000 plaintiffs died waiting for their checks, and CBS News reported that a further 8,000 faced liens against the money when it was distributed.
Similar language followed the BP oil spill, with CEO Tony Hayward assuring affected parties that they, too, would be made whole.
This time, however, lawmakers, citing Exxon, aren’t exactly taking his word for it.
“One of the lessons we’ve learned from Exxon is that if you want to get compensation, you’ve got to get it right away,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar as she reiterated demands that BP set up a compensation fund for spill victims. Most requests have been in the $20 billion vicinity, though the fund amount has yet to be finalized.
Alaska Sen. Mark Begich said he’s working on a legislative response that will become a “situation not just for today but for the future” to deal with compensation from “catastrophic disasters” as well as smaller ones.
“If [BP] sets this up voluntarily, that’s great,” Begich said. “What I’m suggesting is that we’re going to codify that going forward.”
Under Begich’s still-to-be-drafted legislation, the secretary of the Interior would determine the amount of the compensation fund and companies responsible for spills would be required to set that money aside.
On the House side, more than 30 members, including Minnesota’s Keith Ellison and Tim Walz, have signed a letter addressed to Hayward that requests BP dividend payouts not go to shareholders but instead into an escrow compensation fund.
“President Obama and 54 members of the U.S. Senate have called for the establishment of an independently administered $20 billion escrow account, which would be available to cover cleanup costs and economic damages,” the lawmakers wrote. “We join them in their request and further call on BP to divert future dividend payments to this account until such time that all cleanup and compensation costs are fully covered.”
Obama is expected to raise the issue tonight in his Oval Office address to the nation, as well as in a meeting Wednesday with BP executives.
“What’s important to the president as it relates to the claims process is that they’re handled fairly, promptly, and that BP has enough money to make these folks whole who have been hurt so much by the spill,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said.
Still unknown is whether, like the Exxon settlement money, payouts from any compensation fund would be taxable. Victims of that spill, some of whom will never cash their checks because of liens against their awards, have suggested taxable damages are akin to adding insult to injury.
“I don’t know that we have focused on the nuances of that yet,” Klobuchar said, adding that the most important thing right now is that the money be set aside quickly.