TAMPA — When the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded and burned in April 2010, spewing more than 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, huge areas of the Gulf were declared off limits to shrimpers.
“It dropped the price a lot,” said Ernest Donini, a second-generation shrimper out of Tampa. “It made people more hesitant to eat Gulf shrimp. Shrimp started backing up in the freezer, and that affected the price. It affected us.”
Donini knew immediately that the spill was going to be felt in Superior Seafood’s bottom line. He called a lawyer and filed a claim against BP, the global oil giant that set up a $20 billion fund to pay damages resulting from the spill. Donini declined to say how much he’s seeking.
For anyone else who suffered economic effects from the spill, the clock is ticking. The final deadline for filing all claims in the Deepwater Horizon Economic and Property Damages Settlement Program is June 8.
Don’t dawdle, said a Tampa lawyer whose practice is now exclusively Deepwater Horizon claims.
“These claims are complex,” said Tom Young, who has filed roughly 1,000 claims on behalf of businesses. “You don’t want to wait until 6 p.m. on June 8 to fill out the forms and collect your documentation. Time is definitely of the essence right now.”
Young said many Tampa Bay individuals and businesses shouldn’t dismiss the idea of filing simply because the oil never reached our shores.
“The disconnect for local business people is that they’re busy running their business, it was five years ago, they don’t remember oil being here, so they couldn’t have been affected,” he said. “If you look at it from the macroeconomic perspective, there were 50,000 job losses and 10,000 corporate bankruptcies — nearly everyone was affected one way or another from the oil spill.”
Those figures come from a 2014 Harvard University study of the economic impact of the spill, which concluded the biggest losses were experienced by coastal counties away from the Florida Panhandle, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas coasts.
“This area in particular was devastated,” Young said. “West-central Florida, where no physical oil ended up on our beaches, experienced the lion’s share of losses. We simply have a greater tourist industry here than any other areas of the gulf.
“With the impression that oil was on its way for 87 days, and the media covering that story for 87 days, tourists went elsewhere. They went to the east coast, they went to Myrtle Beach. Europeans didn’t come here at all.”
His advice to those contemplating filing?
“If you lost ten dollars, or a hundred dollars, or a thousand dollars, or a million dollars, it’s still your ten dollars. You should claim that money. BP owes it to you.”
BP established the claim program two months after the spill began, with more than 200 lawsuits in 11 states already filed and the oil still gushing.
There are several ways to file.
The Deepwater Horizon Claims Center website has details, forms, frequently asked questions and other pertinent information.
Claims can be filed through the center’s portal; via email; through regular U.S. mail; by registered or certified mail; through a commercial deliver service; or by hand at Claimant Assistant Centers.
There are two of those in this area, in Clearwater and in Fort Myers.
Floridians have filed more claims than people in any of the affected states, with 83,392 of the 257,626 total as of last week. The Clearwater assistance center was the fourth-busiest center, with 2,770 claims — behind only Mobile, Ala., Panama City Beach, and Gulf Shores, Alabama.
The claims could take years to resolve.
Donini, the Tampa shrimper, said his claim is still in the pipeline.
BP, meanwhile, has launched a campaign targeting claims fraud. The company said there have been 259 fraud cases leading to criminal charges, with 184 leading to criminal convictions.
The company is also running ads suggesting the gulf settlement program might be a little generous in awarding cash. One ad sites four colorectal surgeons in a practice 300 miles from the gulf who received more than $60,000 in total. Another blasts an unnamed disaster assistance contractor who received more than $2.6 million in a year there were no hurricanes affecting the gulf coast.
“BP estimates the Court Supervised Settlement Program has awarded more than half a billion dollars to people for losses they claimed but that BP contends are fictitious, exaggerated or not connected to the accident,” the company states on its “State of the Gulf” website.