What BP Won’t Be Paying For—and How You Can Help

Thursday, July 1, 2010

By Penny Fujiko Willgerodt
Executive Director, 
Prospect Hill Foundation

(This post originally appeared in OnEarth Magazine on June 11, 2010 and is reprinted with permission.)

We at the Gulf Coast Fund have noticed people asking why they should support nonprofit organizations responding to the BP oil drilling disaster when, as they say, “Isn’t BP supposed to be paying for this mess?”

Yes. BP should and will pay. There is no way of knowing when and how. (Exxon-Valdez is a case in point. Exxon/Mobil has still paid only a fraction of what they had promised.)

But one thing we do know is that what BP will eventually pay will in no way address the full costs of this disaster.

First, BP is not funding organizations. BP is addressing individual small claims with checks. BP is hiring individual fishermen to do clean-up tasks. BP is not providing doctors to help those fishermen coming back to their houses coughing up blood. BP is not giving out respirators because BP does not want to acknowledge the toxic quality of the dispersants and the oil. BP needs to minimize the financial impact for its shareholders. For whose interest does BP work? Therein lies the problem.

An independent source of income is necessary to ensure that independent voices are supported. How do we know that the clean up is being conducted in a way that is safe for residents living in the affected areas all along the Gulf Coast? How can we be sure that the materials being used are safe? How can we be sure that BP is providing safety gear and respirators to the clean-up workers? Is BP funding the watchdogs? Is BP funding small community groups that have a vested interest in a healthy Gulf? Is BP funding monitoring activities of BP’s own efforts to address the disaster? It is inherently impossible for the perpetrator to monitor itself. It is inherently impossible for government to monitor itself.

That’s why we need to support NGOs and independent advocacy organizations. That’s why we need to support community-based organizations on the ground in the Gulf made up of people who have lived there for generations and even centuries, and thus know their physical environment better than anyone else, even BP, possibly could.

In order to ensure that information is accurate, best practice dictates that independently verified and substantiated data be used. That can only be made possible with independent private dollars.

Of course BP should be held accountable to the greatest degree possible. Of course BP should pay. How can you commence class-action litigation to cover the full impacts of this disaster which have YET to unfold and will unfold for generations? And, if past history is any indication, settlement funds no matter how big will never cover the full cost.

The federal government must also be held accountable for the weakened regulations that caused the disaster and forced to strengthen oversight of the oil industry. Federal clean-up responses must also be carefully monitored by independent sources. BP will not pay for this advocacy or monitoring.

We have seen that BP is willing to invest millions on full-page ads and PR campaigns. They are even willing to attempt to buy control of information available to the public. There seems to be no limit to what they will pay to try to cover up this disaster and reduce their own costs.

What BP will not pay for is ensuring that the Gulf ecosystem is restored. BP will not pay to ensure that communities are defended and made whole again. BP will not pay for advocacy and organizing to lessen our dependence on oil. BP will not pay for work to move us toward a clean energy future, pass climate change legislations, and advocate greater public and private investments in renewable energy to ensure this never happens again. None of these are in BP’s self-interest.

The money that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Gulf Coast Fund are raising is not going to pay individual fishermen to wipe marsh grass or lay down boom. The money that NRDC raises is going to go to groups that have a long-term vested interest in the affected communities and that will be working on the human (economic, cultural, psychological, emotional) AND environmental consequences of this disaster for LONG after BP leaves the Gulf.

The money that we are raising now will ensure that groups in Gulf Coast communities have the financial and moral support to not despair and continue to monitor, advocate, protect, speak up, and not give up hope.

Penny Fujiko Willgerodt is the Executive Director of the Prospect Hill Foundation, a family foundation established in 1959 by the late Elizabeth G. Beinecke and William S. Beinecke, then President and now retired Chairman of the Sperry and Hutchinson Company. The Prospect Hill Foundation’s mission is to advance the human experience while ensuring the well-being of the earth. She started working in philanthropy at the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1987, joined the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation as a Program Officer in 1990, and the Rockefeller Family Office in the fall of 1999 as Philanthropy Advisor, where she was part of the start-up team for Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and was Vice President until the fall of 2008. Throughout her career, Ms. Fujiko Willgerodt has worked with individual donors, family foundations, charitable trusts, donor advised funds, and funder collaboratives on a wide range of issues including arts and culture, gender rights, criminal justice, environmental health and conservation, security issues, sustainable development, and international human rights. She continues to serve as a Fund Advisor to two special projects at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors—the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health and the Legacy Fund of the Special Court for Sierra Leone—and is a Trustee of the Weeksville Heritage Center, a New York City cultural institution based in Brooklyn. Ms. Fujiko Willgerodt graduated cum laude from Yale College with a B.A. in East Asian Studies, and holds an M.A. in Secondary School Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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