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With BP oil spill billions at stake, why did Gulf fishermen suddenly settle?

News that 100,000 fishermen and oil spill workers settled with BP for $7.8 billion rather than going to trial suggests a lesson from the Valdez spill: Drawn-out litigation can become its own tragedy.

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The study, co-authored by psychologist Stephen Picou of the University of South Alabama, drew parallels between the two disasters, noting similarities between communities tied both economically and psychologically to the natural resources affected by the spills. It noted that stress levels in some Alaska communities remained at the same level in 2009 as they had 20 years earlier, in the days after the Valdez spill. Picou said that more recent data “suggest that similar consequences may be forthcoming for Gulf of Mexico communities affected by the BP oil spill.”

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But differences have also emerged between the two historic oil spills. For one thing, while thick oil affected shorelines and fish stocks for decades in Alaska, conditions in the much warmer Gulf promoted deterioration of the oil and may have limited its long-term effects on fish and shrimp stocks. While many tourist towns basically wrote off 2010 as a lost season, tourists largely returned to the Gulf's beaches in 2011, lessening concerns about long-term economic impacts of the spill. And fishermen who saw their catch nearly halved in 2010 say many fish stocks appear to have rebounded.

Given those realities, and the trumpeting of the Gulf's health by regional tourist boards, some observers worried that claimants were giving ammunition to BP's contentions – which could have been raised in a trial – that its liability was smaller than predicted.

"Our state and local leaders have been so quick to declare that the beaches, seafood and Gulf Coast are doing fine that we may have screwed up the chances of the remaining outstanding BP oil spill claims to be paid,” Pensacola blogger Rick Outzen, publisher of the Independent News, wrote last year.

The disaster began in April 2010 when a wellhead known as Macondo blew out deep below the Deepwater Horizon exploratory drilling rig, leading to an explosion and fire that killed 11 workers. As the rig sank, oil began to spill freely into the Gulf. It took 87 days for BP, working with government scientists, to plug the well – a drama that introduced phrase like “junk shot” into the vernacular and unraveled like a slow-motion nightmare for coastal communities who helped fight off the oil with booms, surface fires, and beach rakes.

BP has already paid out billions from a $20 billion trust fund it set aside shortly after the spill, at the behest of the Obama administration. BP set up an independent claims fund that has itself become a source of frustration for many Gulf residents who have struggled to prove the extent of damages from the spill on their livelihoods. While the settlement allows individuals to continue to sue BP, experts do not believe those claims will be substantial.

The Monitor's Weekly News Quiz for Feb. 24-March 2, 2012

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