It's hard to miss the commercials that bombard television viewers, showing cheerful scenes of the Gulf Coast and assuring everyone that oil giant British Petroleum's "commitment to the Gulf and to America has never been stronger." Yet today BP appears before a federal judge in New Orleans to argue that all payments from its multibillion-dollar Gulf oil spill civil settlement should be temporarily halted.
Earlier this month, Former FBI director Louis Freeh began a court-ordered investigation into alleged wrongdoing by lawyers administering the settlement fund payments. Those implicated deny any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, one has resigned while another was terminated.
BP argues that it should make no further payments to those impacted by the 2010 Gulf oil spill until Freeh's probe is complete. The corporation apparently no longer trusts the firm it selected and proposed handle the Deepwater Horizon Court Supervised Settlement Program. If successful, the emergency injunction would affect every claim now being paid to both individuals and businesses that suffered damage when an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil spewed into Gulf waters.
How long will the investigation take? No completion deadline has been set, and a source with knowledge of the process predicts it could last up to nine months. Translation? Those who suffered loss of health, income or property through no fault of their own would go up to nine months without promised compensation.
Who is still being impacted? While visitors are flowing in droves to many areas of the Gulf Coast, the U.S. Travel Association estimates the economic losses in tourism dollars in the region over the three-year post-spill period will exceed $23 billion.
Fish catches are down across the Gulf region when compared to the pre-spill years 2002 to 2009, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Oyster catches have dropped 17 percent, shrimp, 15 percent and crab, 1 percent. Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reports the problem is even worse in state waters where the oyster haul is down 27 percent, shrimp, 39 percent and blue crab, 18 percent.
A National Wildlife Federation report in April concluded that the high number of dolphin and sea turtle deaths in the region are a sign the Gulf is still suffering the effects of the deadly spill.
There were an average of 24 sea turtle strandings in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama annually from 2007 - 2009. According to the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, after the spill the numbers jumped to 525 in 2011, 354 in 2012 and 415 so far this year.
NOAA statistics show the number of dead dolphins washing up on Gulf beaches have jumped from an average of 63 a year between 2002 and 2009 to 229 in 2010, 335 in 2011 and 158 in 2012. Bottlenose dolphin deaths for 2013 have already hit 167.
Testing does show seafood caught in the Gulf is safe to eat. I enjoy it on every visit back to my Gulf Coast hometown of Bay St. Louis, Miss. I don’t hesitate to wade into the waters of the sound with my nephews as we haul in crab traps and take the crustaceans home to boil up in a steaming pot with corn, onions and Cajun seasoning. And the nearby beaches are clean and oil-free.
But there are still clear and lingering impacts from the 2010 BP oil spill. To allow BP to even temporarily stop payments to the tens of thousands it has harmed would be wrong and only cause more damage to an area still struggling to recover.
Updated 7/19/13: Federal judge Carl Barbier has denied BP's request to temporarily halt payments to those impacted by the 2010 oil spill while an investigator probes possible misconduct in the process. In a hearing in New Orleans today, Barbier ruled that the oil giant had not produced any evidence that the "mass of claims" were not being properly handled.
Kathleen Koch is a Washington-based freelance journalist, author and speaker. Her best-selling book, "Rising from Katrina," traces her Gulf Coast hometown's recovery from the hurricane. She was a prize-winning CNN correspondent for 18 years.