Correction to This Article
A photo caption said that Louisiana fisherman Acy Cooper Jr. was making a "rare" shrimping trip and that he "isn't on the water much anymore." Cooper was making about three shrimping trips a week in September and October, according to records of the trips that he provided.

Six months after the spill, BP's money is changing the gulf as much as its oil

The region that absorbed the oil spill has been dramatically changed by the lasting environmental and economic effects.
By David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 12:55 AM

VENICE, LA. -- The oil has mostly disappeared. And in southern Louisiana, things are finally looking normal - improbably, blessedly normal - six months after the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

But on a truly normal evening, Acy Cooper Jr. would be out shrimping. Instead, one recent night, he was staying home, as he has done more often these days.

"Why? It don't pay me to do that when they're going to pay my claim anyway," said Cooper, vice president of the state's shrimpers association.

Today, it is BP's money, not its oil, that is most visibly altering the Gulf Coast. The company has been trying - on federal orders - to protect not just the water but the way of life there. But BP's waterfall of cash has changed people's lives profoundly.

The oil company has already paid out $965 million and set aside $20 billion in a separate compensation fund. The money has been welcomed as a lifeline. But it has made the coast feel like an open-air economic experiment: Some hardworking fishermen think it's in their best interest to be idle, losing market share they will need next year. And those who haven't been paid are looking for legal and illegal ways to work the system.

Kenneth R. Feinberg, whom President Obama chose as compensation czar, says fishermen such as Cooper are wrong to believe he will pay them not to shrimp. They will be compensated for the time they couldn't fish, but "if a shrimper has the ability to earn a livelihood, there is no longer a need for an emergency payment," he said.

Across the coast, Feinberg said, people are already seeing the limits of what money - even an oil company's massive amount of money - can do to right an environmental wrong.

"I told 9/11 victims when they said, 'Bring back my wife, or my son or my daughter' - 'I can't do that,' " said Feinberg, who also oversaw compensation payouts to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "I can't compensate you in the gulf for a way of life that goes back 100 years. I can only compensate you for financial damages."

And keeping up with that process is proving more difficult by the day. A few weeks ago, Feinberg's fund adopted new policies that paid claims faster and more generously. The result: The rate of new claims doubled, Feinberg said.

"People see that their next-door neighbor is getting paid," he said. So they say, "Why don't we submit a claim?"

A disaster's impact

It has been half a year since April 20, when an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 men. Two days later, the rig's sinking set off a gray-brown geyser of crude oil, which eventually spewed 4.9 million barrels (205.8 million gallons), about 19 times more than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

Scientists are still trying to measure the spill's full impact on the gulf. Little oil remains on the water's surface, and the toll of about 6,100 birds and 600 turtles was just a fraction of the animal deaths in the Alaska spill. There are continuing concerns about what's happening on the seafloor. But it is already clear that this was not Valdez.

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