By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the $500 million paid by BP Plc in compensation in the state for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill was just the "tip of the iceberg" and called for more claims, believing Alabama had not received a fair share of the $3 billion in total payouts so far.
Strange hosted meetings on Wednesday across northern Alabama to call attention to potential claims for the very same business economic losses that are the subject of a high-profile BP legal battle, which will hit the region's appellate court on July 8.
"I believe $500 million is just the tip of the iceberg," Strange said as he introduced the court-appointed BP claims administrator, Pat Juneau, who also attended the three meetings.
Most of the 72,000 claims in Alabama have been filed by coastal businesses and individuals, Strange said. More than 4 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf over about three months, affecting the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.
"There is an erroneous perception that if you are not on the coast, you were not affected," said Brian Hilson, head of the Birmingham Business Alliance, in a city 292 miles from Dauphin Island, Alabama's southern-most point.
Juneau assured the audience of 50 people in Birmingham, the third stop of the day, that anyone in the state could make a claim if they proved a 15 percent loss during the time of spill.
"It is a hell of a deal," Juneau said. "If you have something better coming into this state, bring it on!"
Juneau told Reuters last month he expected a surge of late claims ahead of the deadline of April 22, 2014.
BP has complained that under Juneau's watch, too many people who suffered no damage are making claims and "making a mockery" of the process. But Juneau responded on Wednesday: "I was invited by a state official to educate people in the north as a court official - I don't have a dog in the fight."
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed to a BP appeal over the claims process, setting a hearing for July 8. That came after U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in April found no reason to interfere with the payout process, despite BP complaints of frivolous and "fictitious" claims.
BP had originally estimated the uncapped settlement would be somewhere in the range of $8 billion, but then expressed concerns about it rising far beyond that.
The source of dispute for BP is the calculation of business economic losses, which account for $2 billion of $3.47 billion in claims deemed eligible so far, according to the website for the Deepwater Horizon Economic and Property Damages settlement.
Nearly 185,000 claims have been submitted, the website said, and of those, 34,754 have been paid out for $2.4 billion, while nearly 9,000 more have been identified as eligible, adding another $1 billion-plus potentially to the total.
The website said Alabama is third among the five Gulf states for claims, behind Florida and Louisiana, though the claimant assistance center in Mobile, Alabama, has handled the most.
April saw the end of the first phase of a trial heard by Barbier covering claims brought by the U.S. government, the Gulf states, and private parties affected by the spill. Legal briefs for that phase are due next month, before the September start of the next phase to determine how much oil spilled.
The case is in re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, No. 10-md-02179. The appeal on claims is "BP Exploration & Production Inc et al. vs Lake Eugenie Land & Development Inc, et al." in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, No. 13-30329.
(Writing by Braden Reddall; Editing by Michael Perry)