TALLAHASSEE — Following months or criticism over paying claims too slowly, BP is now taking heat from some for just the opposite, paying locals too much for their efforts and upsetting a regional economy that some fear will never return.
State Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, says BP attempts to help fishermen is resulting in crabs not being harvested, oysters not being picked and charter fishing trips canceled because the boats are being used to search for oil.
In a new twist to the debate, Patronis, who owns a coastal seafood restaurant, said the influx of money into the region is having a “corrosive effect” that is undermining the region’s historic economic base by paying businesses more for recovery efforts that are only temporary.
“We’re about to have a train wreck that you are not going to be able to put back on the track,” Patronis told BP Vice President Darryl Willis, the company’s disaster point man who appeared before a panel of state officials.
Patronis says it’s getting more expensive to buy oysters, not because the beds are closed but because many oyster harvesters have filed lost income claims to BP and are making more money. Charter boat fishing, which normally lures thousands of tourists to the region, is virtually nonexistent in large part because boats are being paid up to $2,000 a day to look for oil.
The state’s top social services official says he’s hearing of similar trends, but attributes it more to resourcefulness than idleness. The ability to make a lot more money by cleaning beaches or working on oil skimming vessels as opposed to oystering harvesting is a powerful draw to many workers used to the precarious economics of this region, where summer employment has to pull you through the rest of the year.
“They’ve got a bit of windfall now and many are taking advantage of that opportunity,” said George Sheldon, secretary of the Department of Children and Families. “The problem with that is that it’s work that won’t be around forever.”
Sheldon said one remedy would be to allow workers to collect some BP payments without having to stop doing what they’re doing.
BP’s point man on the recovery front appeared puzzled when asked about Patronis’ concerns, saying the company is trying to walk a fine line of providing businesses and individuals relief without discouraging them from getting back on their feet.
“We have an obligation to mitigate that damage through our claims process but at the same time, if there is the ability to go out and work, we want people to go out and work,” Willis said.
“If you can go out and fish, go out and fish. If you can go out and crab, go out and crab. The money is intended to be a bridge.”
E-mail Michael Peltier at email@example.com.