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June 6, 2013

‘Critical importance to Alabama’

AG visits Cullman to explain BP oil spill claims process

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill that dumped almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico might’ve happened a few hundred miles from Cullman — but that doesn’t mean the massive, 2010 catastrophe didn’t have a local effect.

The leak persisted for 87 days until crews finally managed to seal it, and during that time the clean-up and after-effects wreaked havoc on the southern economy, costing revenue across Alabama, Louisiana and several other states.

After a lengthy legal battle, a class-action suit resulted in the creation of an uncapped fund that will be used to reimburse businesses and groups negatively affected by the spill.

Oil may have only landed on the beaches of two coastal Alabama counties, but officials say people far inland could still be eligible for payments under the claims process.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange and BP oil claims specialist Patrick Juneau visited Cullman on Wednesday to break down the process for locals with an hour-long session at the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce.

“This is something that was so large and affected almost every business,” Strange said. “Even looking at Cullman, the ripple effect of the entire coastline being shut down is just amazing.”

Juneau, who has been put in charge of administering settlements and accepting claims, described the process as “one hell of a year.”

“This is the largest, most complicated settlement program in history,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is let people know about the process is, what their rights are and how to file a claim.”

A total of 172,540 claims have been filed — with 32,367 of those originating from Alabama. Almost $3.5 billion in claims have been declared since the office opened up to receive them a little over a year ago. There have been 154 claims filed in Cullman County over the past year.

To apply for a claim, businesses are required to prove declines in revenue during the affected time surrounding the oil spill. There are a handful of benchmarks to allow a business to file, though most require proof of a 10-15 percent drop in revenue over a three month period. The filing deadline is April 22, 2014.

“You have to show consecutive losses in a specific period of time,” Juneau said.

Considering Cullman County suffered its own catastrophe in April 2011 — via the tornadoes that shredded several small businesses and homes — attorney Roy Williams asked if a special concession could be made for those businesses, since the local event will only work to further skew income figures.

“That’s something that could’ve shut down some businesses from April until December,” he said.

Juneau didn’t go into specifics on how those types of issues might be addressed, but did say he encourages every business that might have been affected to apply.

Though public government entities are not included under the settlement, Cullman County Board of Education finance director Russell Raney asked Strange the status of a separate suit seeking funds to make up for lost tax revenue for those agencies.

“It’s in the first phase of the trial and that is before the judge now,” Strange said. “I’ve said from the very beginning that I’d be open to a fair settlement, but I won’t take an unfair settlement. Right now, we’re still working through the process.”

The Cullman session was one of several stops on the Attorney General’s schedule Wednesday, and Chamber President Leah Bolin said she was proud the agency could offer the meeting to help locals gather information about the process.

“We wanted our members and the community to be aware of the legitimate claims in north Alabama, and to have the ability to recoup any lost income,” she said.

Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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