Gulf Businesses Seek Help

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Gulf Coast seafood restaurant owners who expect ruination filed a class action Tuesday asking to be covered under the Oil Pollution Act. And the Sierra Club and Gulf Restoration Network claim the Minerals Management Service exempted offshore oil companies from providing information that might have prevented the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

     BP told a congressional committee on Monday that it will rely on the Oil Pollution Act to know what sort of assistance seafood industry workers are entitled to.
     In appearing before the congressional committee, BP America President Lamar McKay was asked if a seafood restaurant that gets its food from the Gulf would qualify as a legitimate claim for economic assistance from BP. McKay replied: “We look to the Oil Pollution Act for guidance.”
     More federal fishing closures were announced Tuesday, covering 46,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, or about 19 percent of U.S. waters there.
     BP has set up claim centers around Louisiana’s coastal parishes where fishermen can apply for emergency money from BP.
     Shrimp season was delayed this spring due to a long winter, so shrimpers who waited all winter to make the bulk of their income from the shrimp harvest stand to lose most of their annual salary.
     David Chaix told the Times-Picayune that he registered with the BP claims center in Slidell, and was told he can expect to receive a $5,000 check in 5 to 7 days.
     “It’s a start,” he told the newspaper. Chaix said he generally makes $15,000 to $20,000 in June on small shrimp and another $4,000 to $5,000 on large shrimp. “Keep me floating, I guess. Hopefully the season opens, and I can make some real money.”
     But not everyone who files a claim can expect immediate assistance.
     Owners of seafood restaurants and others in the seafood industry were told at the claims office on Tuesday that BP will get back to them about their claims.
     A Bar & Grill with a Bite is the named plaintiff in the class action, represented by Stephen Herman of New Orleans.
     Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and Gulf Restoration Network sued the Minerals Management Service and the Department of the Interior to “invalidate an illegal waiver of its own safety regulations.” The environmental groups say the Minerals Management Service gave BP a permit to drill at 5,000 feet without requiring BP to conduct what should have been required tests to prove it had the capability to stop a catastrophe such as the one created by the Deepwater Horizon. (A similar complaint was filed in Mobile Federal Court. See today’s coverage on the Courthouse News page.)
     The Sierra Club says the MMS granted BP and other offshore drillers exemptions from environmental laws. Such tests, the groups say, are “required in virtually every other part of the country that allows offshore drilling.”
     The Sierra Club claims that in 2008, Lars T. Herbst, regional director of the Minerals Management Service in the Gulf of Mexico, exempted offshore exploratory drilling operations from compliance with the Blowout Scenario Disclosure and portions of the Worst Case Scenario requirements in the governing federal rules.
     This exemption “effectively repealed most of those requirements for the operations most at risk for blowouts – exploratory drilling operations,” according to the complaint.
     The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act requires MMS approval for all drilling on federal leases. Lessees must file an Exploration Plan that describes the proposed activities, and the MMS must the plan to ensure that the exploration will not “cause serious or undue hard or damage to life, property… or the marine, coastal, or human environment; unreasonably interfere with other uses of the area; result in pollution; create hazardous or unsafe conditions; or disturb any site, structure, or object of historical or archaeological significance,” according to the complaint.
     The Sierra Club claims the Mineral Management Service adopted these regulations as recently as 2005, yet never required the tests or documents from BP.
     The regulations require that every exploration plan contain public disclosures of the highest volume of crude oil that could be discharged from an uncontrolled well blowout, the maximum flow rate, duration and volume of such a blowout, the likelihood the blowout could be stopped by surface intervention, rig package constraints and the availability of the rig to drill a relief well, and the time needed to drill such as relief well.
     The regulations also require the oil company to describe and analyze the response to the “worst case” spill from such an exploration well.
     Together, the Sierra Club says, “these requirements ensure that operators think about what can go wrong and how to prevent it, or mitigate the damage. These requirements also provide both the regulators and public with adequate information to make informed decisions based on risks and benefits.”
     The plaintiffs seek costs and damages for violation of the Administrative Procedures Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and want a review of all the deepwater permits granted in the Gulf of Mexico.
     Their lead counsel is Joel Waltzer of Harvey, La.

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