Gulf Coast Holds Its Breath|as BP Claims Well Is Capped

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Citizens across the Gulf Coast are holding their breath after BP claimed that it has stopped the catastrophic oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. But the gusher of lawsuits continues, accusing BP and its partners of a slew of mistakes in the days before and after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil well. One class action blames 16 maritime companies for setting off the leak, by drowning the burning oil rig with water, causing it to twist on its foundation and snap off the pipe.

     Among the federal complaints filed this week are a class action blaming 16 maritime companies for the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon by drowning it with water after the April 20 explosion; a seaman who claimed he was fired after falling sick from exposure to toxic chemicals in the spill; and a cleanup worker who says BP owes him compensation after he fell over a second-story railing of his hotel.
     In the class action filed on behalf of the sunken Deepwater Horizon, three classes of plaintiffs – landowners; commercial fishermen, shrimpers, oyster harvesters, charter boat operators; and oil industry workers – say the gush of oil from the broken wellhead could have been avoided if the Deepwater Horizon had not sink.
     The class claims that when “the rig turned and began to sink, the pipe connected to the wellhead collapsed and fell to the seafloor,” unleashing the catastrophic geyser of oil, 1 mile deep under the Gulf.
     On the night of April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11, then catching fire, 12 vessels owned by 16 named maritime companies were in the area came to its aid, according to the complaint.
     The class claims that the initial damage estimates from the fire were low, “with the overwhelming majority of the oil burning and not spilling into the ocean.”
     At the time, “the oil rig appeared to be floating, fully buoyant but on fire because it was still connected to a well source of highly pressurized oil and gas,” the class claims. It adds that the Deepwater Horizon did not “appear in any imminent danger of sinking.”
     As fireboats arrived at the burning rig, “with little to no time to assess the damage and condition of the Deepwater Horizon,” eight or more fireboats drenched the rig with seawater, at a rate of 10,000 to 50,000 gallons per minute.
     As the fireboats blasted the rig with water, its upper compartments filled up, causing the rig’s center of gravity to shift, making it turn on its pontoons.
     The class claims that “no industry procedure, no vessel procedure, and no procedure of any of the defendants provide for the use of water in responding to an oil well blowout fire or a petroleum fire under pressure.”
     The class claims the defendants should have known “that the source of the fire on the Deepwater Horizon was the petroleum under pressure; knew, or should have known, that the use of water and fire cannons was ineffective and produced no benefit but created the risk of causing the vessel to sink.”
     Had the rig not been caused to sink, there is a much greater likelihood that the drilling pipe attached to its bottom might have been properly disconnected and capped near the surface, according to the complaint.
     The class is represented by Lloyd Frischhertz of New Orleans.
     Defendants include Seacor Marine, Siemens Financial, Gulfmark Offshore and a slew of vessels.
     In a second complaint, Clay Whittinghill claims he became ill while working on the cleanup. – and was fired for it. He sued the maritime company he worked for, Abdon Callais Offshore.
     Whittinghill claims he was exposed to massive amounts of contaminants, including benzene, zinc, chlorides, sulfate, ammonia, radium, radioactive pollutants, drilling fluids, methane, contaminants such as the oil dispersant Corexit, and antifreeze.
     After being exposed to the contaminants, Whittinghill says, he suffered “severe, painful, and disabling injuries to his body, including but not limited to occupational bronchitis, sinusitis, distorted vision, disorientation, rashes, headaches, nausea, and abdominal pains, as well as severe psychic trauma and emotional suffering.”
     Whittinghill says his own doctor and the defendant’s doctor told him he couldn’t work until his condition improved, and that he was “unfit to return to work around ‘hydrocarbons’ present in the immediate vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon clean-up efforts.”
     In response, Whittinghill says, he was fired.
     He is represented by Scott Bickford. BP is not named as a defendant in this case.
     In a third complaint, Clyde Harper sued Ameri-Force Inc. and BP, saying that while working for BP through Ameri-Force as a Jones Act seaman cleanup worker, he fell from his second-story balcony at the Sand Dollar Marina Inn in Grand Isle when the railing gave way.
     Harper claims the fall caused head and neck injuries, including a fractured vertebra, rib cage, and a collapsed right lung.
     Harper says the defendants have refused to cover for his medical treatment.
     He is seeks $450,000 and is represented by Alonzo Stanga III of Metairie.
     In a wider perspective, Kenneth Feinberg, who is overseeing a $20 billion fund to pay claims for BP’s liability for the oil spill, told government officials in Harahan, La., on Thursday he is determined to create a system “more generous and more beneficial” to spill victims than taking BP to court.
     Feinberg was recruited by BP and President Barack Obama to oversee administration of the $20 billion fund.
     Feinberg told CNBC in late June that BP created the fund, in part, to limit its liability.
     “Investors in BP should know that there’s now an alternative to the litigation system in place,” Feinberg told CNBC about the creation of the fund.
     “It’s a way for BP to avoid lawsuits, in the end,” Feinberg said. “And it’s a way for a claimant voluntarily to get a check now. You don’t have to litigate for years – with some uncertainty about whether you’d win – and you don’t have to pay a lawyer 30 percent.”
     As the good news that BP had finally capped the well circulated on the hot sticky streets of Louisiana on Thursday, many residents said they did not know what to think – and that it was too soon to trust that the catastrophe is ending.
     Officials on Thursday called BP’s success tentative.
     Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said in a statement: “We’re encouraged by this development, but this isn’t over. Over the next several hours we will continue to collect data and work with the federal science team to analyze this information and perform additional seismic mapping runs in the hopes of gaining a better understanding on the condition of the well bore and options for temporary shut in of the well during a hurricane. It remains likely that we will return to the containment process using this new stacking cap connected to the risers to attempt to collect up to 80,000 barrels of oil a day until the relief well is completed.”
     Also on Thursday the Department of Interior said it has told BP that it must report all oil- and gas-related activities at its well and pay royalties on the oil and gas captured from the well. BP also will be liable for royalties on lost or wasted oil and gas if it is determined that negligence or regulatory violations caused or contributed to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent leak.
     In a final irony, BP called the well that exploded the Macondo. Macondo is the village in Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” in which life in the dull, steamy lowlands is periodically interrupted by inexplicable occurrences.

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