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Congresswoman Maxine Waters

Representing the 43rd District of California

Liability Issues Surrounding the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster

May 27, 2010
Committee Remark
Congresswoman Waters delivered the following opening remarks at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on legal liabilities that have arisen in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster:

"I would like to thank Chairman John Conyers for organizing this hearing on liability issues related to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  BP previously estimated that the oil spill continues to gush over 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of oil each day into the Gulf of Mexico.  However, some independent estimates put the total as high as 70,000 barrels each day.  And with every effort to stop the leak having failed, there appears to be no end in sight to the flow of leaking oil.
This disaster is already having a devastating impact on the economy of the Gulf Coast region and the way of life of many of its residents.   Many of these residents are still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and the BP disaster has doubled their sorrows.   During a recent trip to New Orleans, I was particularly struck by the stories of the minority fishermen and small port business owners along the Gulf Coast.  
From week to week, fishermen don't know how long their jobs will be on hold.  There are issues that currently exist that must be brought to light regarding the plight of minority fishermen relating to the oil spill.  Byron Encalade is the President of the Louisiana Oysters Association and the President of the Plaquemines Parish Fishermen Association.  He knows first-hand the effect that the oil spill is having on fishermen who depend upon the waters for their very sustenance.  He is here today, and I thank him for his participation in the hearing.  I am sure this committee will benefit from his story.
Fishermen have depended upon this season to be their opportunity to finally recover from past harm, but this is not going to be the case.  The oyster season was supposed to open on May 1, and some fishermen prepared their boats to have them ready to go out for the first two or three days.  They planned to bring in their first haul of the season and pay bills.  But of course that did not happen. 
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has already closed over 54,096 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico to commercial and recreational fishing in order to ensure that seafood will remain safe for consumers.  That is slightly more than 22 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.  A closure of this size is bound to have a devastating impact on fisheries in the Gulf, where commercial fishermen harvested more than one billion pounds of fish and shellfish in 2008.
On Monday, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke determined that there has been a fishery disaster in the Gulf of Mexico due to the economic impact on commercial and recreational fisheries.  The affected area includes the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.  This determination allows the federal government to provide assistance to affected fishermen and local communities under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  The Administration requested $15 million in supplemental appropriations to cover compensation to fisherman under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, while emphasizing that these funds will only be used as a last resort.  Meanwhile, the Administration reiterated its commitment to ensure that BP and other responsible parties cover the full costs of economic damages to affected fishermen.
I am concerned that this approach may not adequately meet the needs of small fishermen and small businesspeople who have lost their livelihoods.  Needless to say, $15 million is a tiny sum of money to respond to a fishery disaster of this magnitude.  Furthermore, many of the fishermen who are most severely impacted may have difficulty filing a claim and cannot afford to hire a lawyer.  The fishermen of the Gulf need to feed their families and pay their mortgages now – not after a lengthy court battle.
I am in the process of drafting legislation to expand the Magnuson-Stevens Act to provide a proportionate response to the BP oil spill.  My legislation will allow small fishermen and small businesspeople to apply for and receive assistance from the federal government without releasing BP and other responsible parties from liability for their economic losses.  The bill will allow the federal government to file claims directly with BP in order to recover the assistance provided to affected individuals and communities under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.  My bill will also include a robust authorization of appropriations to respond to this challenge.
Therefore, I look forward to the testimony of the witnesses.  I especially look forward to learning about ways Congress can assist small fishermen, small businesspeople, and all Americans who have lost their livelihoods as a result of this unprecedented environmental disaster.
I yield back the balance of my time."

Watch Congresswoman Waters question a BP executive about the company's claims processes and history of environmental legal troubles