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Thursday, June 10, 2010

BP Agrees To Pay Claims, Obama Meets Victims' Families

Obama Meets With Relatives Of BP Oil Rig Blast Victims

President Obama met at the White House on Thursday with the families of the 11 workers killed in the BP oil rig explosion.

The meeting provided an opportunity for the president to "express his heartfelt condolences" for the April 20 tragedy and discuss "what type of changes can and must be made ... to ensure that deepwater drilling that goes forward is done in a way that is safe and not life-threatening," according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

The meeting with the families came as Labor Secretary Hilda Solis headed to Louisiana to talk with fishermen affected by the oil spill and Congress continued with hearings on what has become an all-consuming issue on Capitol Hill.

Gibbs said earlier Thursday that the president planned, among other things, "to tell the families he is committed to work with Congress to ensure that any disparity in the law is addressed and the families receive due compensation."

Obama has announced plans to visit the Gulf Coast again next week. It will be his fourth trip to the region since the gusher began in late April.

Also Thursday, an Obama administration official said BP has pledged to speed up its payment of claims to businesses affected by the oil disaster.

The oil company has agreed to look at upcoming expenses of a business filing a claim rather than a company's expenses for a previous month, said Tracy Wareing of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"BP recognized that their previous approach of waiting until basically after the books have closed for each month to calculate losses will not work," Wareing said. "It won't get dollars out quickly enough for the businesses that are struggling on the ground."

BP's handling of claims related to the largest oil spill in U.S. history has come under intense criticism from idled workers in the Gulf states and from members of Congress.

BP is responsible for paying for the cleanup under federal law and has said it will pay "all legitimate claims" for damages that result from the disaster.

The company also has agreed to take workers' seasonal earnings into account in paying claims, said Wareing, an adviser to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Frustration boiled over Thursday as federal and local officials complained at a key Senate governmental affairs subcommittee hearing that it remains unclear who is in charge of the oil disaster response.

"I still don't know who's in charge," said Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish. "Is it BP? Is it the Coast Guard? ... I have spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil."

What is needed, Nungesser said, is someone "with the guts and the will to make decisions."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, repeated his call for the U.S. military to take a greater role in the response effort, arguing that it has the best command-and-control system in the world.

Nelson blasted federal officials for failing to alert local authorities that oil from the Gulf disaster has entered Florida waters. Nelson noted that oil is now in Florida's Perdido Bay, near the Alabama border.

"The Coast Guard is doing a great job, but they are stretched to the limit," Nelson said during a Senate hearing on the spill. "We are livid that the command and control is not there. ... Communication is not coming to the state and local government."

And Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, blasted BP on Thursday for failing to attend her subcommittee's hearing on oil and gas worker safety. "Honestly, I find it very outrageous that even after an accident that killed 11 workers, BP is not putting a high enough priority on worker safety to send a representative to a hearing specifically focused on protecting workers in their industry," Murray said.

But another lawmaker mocked Congress for holding multiple hearings on the spill before experts have figured out how to halt the oil. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, sarcastically called the packed hearing schedule, "Congress at its best."

"You know, why don't we get the oil stopped, all right? Figure out what the hell went wrong, and then have the hearing and get the damn law fixed," Boehner told reporters at his weekly press conference.

Earlier Thursday, Obama said the oil disaster has highlighted the inadequacy of current environmental pollution laws and urged Congress to move forward with a series of changes in an "aggressive, forward-leaning way."

The president made his remarks during a White House meeting with the bipartisan congressional leadership

"We had a frank conversation about the fact that the laws that have been in place have not been adequate for a crisis of this magnitude," he said.

The president specifically mentioned the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which Democrats have criticized for imposing a $75 million liability cap on oil spills.

A White House spokesman said Thursday that the administration won't reconsider its six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling "without knowing exactly what happened" to cause the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

The administration ordered the halt to allow time for a probe into April's sinking of the drill rig Deepwater Horizon. Officials in Louisiana have called for the moratorium to be lifted, arguing it puts thousands of jobs at risk.

n the meantime, federal authorities have given BP until Friday to devise contingency plans for the continued collection of gushing oil into a containment cap in the event of an operational failure or severe weather.

In a letter written Tuesday, the government's on-scene administrator, Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, instructed BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles to lay out a process for the recovery of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

BP said it has collected about 73,300 barrels, or about 3 million gallons, of oil since it placed a containment cap on its ruptured well.

Federal agencies responsible for monitoring the toll to wildlife reported Thursday that 473 oiled birds have been collected alive and that 658 were dead. The report said 52 sea turtles have been collected alive; 279 were dead.

As the environmental crisis worsens, states are tracking the disaster's health impact, including respiratory and skin irritation problems in Louisiana and Alabama, health officials said.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is aware of 71 cases of oil spill-related illness as of Wednesday, said state health officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry. Of them, 50 involved workers on oil rigs or who participated in cleanup efforts, and 21 came from the general public.

Symptoms included throat irritation, cough, chest pain, headaches and shortness of breath, Guidry said. Eight workers were hospitalized, for an average of one day each, the department said.

In Alabama, 15 cases of illness have been reported, said Dr. Don Williamson, state health officer.

Florida has received no reports of illness connected to the oil spill, said health department spokeswoman Susan Smith.

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Sources: CNN, Google Maps

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