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Date of Issue: June 02, 2010

Lawyers seek to unite fishers in BP battle

Attorneys Justin Grosz and David Rash at the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez, where, on May 27, they talked with about 40 local residents about suing BP.

The audience for a meeting at the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez May 27. The meeting focused on potential legal actions against BP over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

There is no Deepwater Horizon oil on the local shore, and there may never be any oil from the ruptured British Petroleum well on the local shore.

But the massive oil spill still may doom a way of life in Cortez. Such was the worry of the estimated 40 people who gathered May 27 at the old 1912 Cortez Schoolhouse/Florida Maritime Museum in the historic fishing village.

“It’s a whole way of life that can be wiped out with the change of the tide,” said Manatee County Commissioner John Chappie, who lives in Bradenton Beach and represents the Island and Cortez.

The audience assembled at the schoolhouse to hear from attorneys with an influential, Miami-based firm, Alters, Boldt, Brown, Rash and Culmo, P.A., about potential litigation against BP and other companies over what the president termed “an economic and environmental tragedy.”

On April 20, an explosion at an oil rig about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana killed 11 crewmembers. Soon after it was reported that a BP deepwater well at the site was leaking oil and natural gas. Reports have varied on how much oil has spilled from the well — from 12,000 barrels a day to 70,000 barrels.

As BP has taken a variety of steps to stop the leak, most recently filling the well with mud and a force of 20,000 people — corporate, government and volunteer — has worked to skim the oil and protect the coast lines of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

A focus in Florida has been on preparing for if the oil to washes ashore and informing potential tourists around the world that the Sunshine State’s beaches are clean and its resort communities, including Anna Maria Island, are open for business.

There was little discussion in the schoolhouse about marketing messages and clean beaches, because the Gulf of Mexico, where so many Cortezians earn a living, is not clean and about 25 percent of the federal waters are closed.

“This is really a watershed moment,” said attorney David C. Rash. “You are talking about your livelihood.”

Rash and firm partner Justin Grosz have held a number of meetings with commercial fishers on the coast since the spill a month ago.

Loss of income, Rash told the Cortez crowd last week, is inevitable.

Lawsuits also are inevitable, and Rash, emphasizing that commercial fishers — who traditionally are independent laborers — must unite.

“It is important for the commercial fishermen to be united in their efforts against BP,” said Rash, who dismissed as a tactic the oil company’s rush to distribute $5,000 checks to those filing claims over a toll-free hotline. “Because make no mistake about it — BP is going to make an all-out assault.”

Rash predicted that the legal claims against BP and other parties would build to become the largest multi-district litigation in U.S. history.

It’s Rash’s goal that his firm be named lead counsel in the case. It’s also Rash’s goal to represent a band of fishers, fish-house operators and others in industries tied to the Gulf.

“You don’t want to be at the bottom and splintered, with various lawyers,” he said. “When I talk about being united, I’m talking about coming to the table as one.”

Ships are directly over the damaged Deepwater Horizon well, where crews worked May 26 to plug the wellhead using a technique known as "top kill," The procedure involved stemming the flow of oil and gas and ultimately “kill” the well by injecting mud through the blowout preventer on the seabed down into the well. The spray of water was needed to keep oil and fumes from interfering with the work. Islander Photo: U.S. Coast Guard/Patrick Kelley

The attorneys handled questions about:

•      The status of the spill. Scientists studying the spill reported last week a plume of oil — about 22 miles long — was discovered near an underwater canyon where currents feed sea life in waters off Florida.

•      It is gigantic and on the edge of the Loop Current,” Rash said.

•       The cause of the spill. “It clearly is a situation where there is going to be gross negligence, willful misconduct and violation of federal regulations,” Rash said.

•       Reports that BP’s damages liability will be capped at $75 million. “That is never going to apply in this case,” Rash said.

Perhaps the most difficult answers for the attorneys were the most pressing questions from the audience about the long-term impacts of the spill and the chemicals being used to break up the oil.

“My son would be the sixth generation,” Mary Campbell said of her family’s ties to commercial fishing. “What insurance is there for future generations?”

Rash replied, “If the Gulf of Mexico fisheries are so damaged that grouper stocks are crushed and closed for the next five years, that will be calculated.”

Capt. Zach Zacharias raised concerns about the dispersants being used. “That whole thing could blow out the whole Gulf,” he said.

“It can be very damaging,” Rash said.

He referred to the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, which, until the Deepwater spill, was the largest oil spill in U.S. history. An estimated 18 million to 39 million gallons of oil has leaked from the Deepwater Horizon well. The grounded Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil.

“We know from studies and what happened in Alaska. There are fisheries in Alaska that never came back,” Rash said.

The meeting came to a close with a question from the audience: What’s next?

The attorneys brought blank contracts for people to read and distributed business cards for follow-up conversations.

“We won’t stop until we get what’s due,” Rash said. “And we won’t let BP get off the hook. They caused it and they are going to pay for what they’ve done to the Gulf of Mexico.”

A number of people, as they left the schoolhouse, said they felt certain they would need a lawyer, they just didn’t know when.

Manatee chamber hosts oil forum

The Manatee Chamber of Commerce will hold a free seminar on how the Deepwater Horizon incident could impact local business and tourism.

Speakers will represent Manatee County Natural Resources and Emergency Management department, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and Mote Marine Laboratory.

The seminar will take place at 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 2, at the chamber office, 222 10th St. W., Bradenton.

For more information, including registration details, call the chamber at 941-748-4842.