Action Report: Ferry operators balk at oil spill claim offer
Posted on June 23, 2011 at 6:30 PM

Updated yesterday at 6:44 PM

Bill Capo / Eyewitness News

SHIP ISLAND, Ms. — For boatloads of people, getting away from it all means a visit to Ship Island, enjoying the sand and surf 11 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico from Gulfport.

Packed ferries this summer are good news for the Pan Isles company that operates Ship Island Excursions. They were struggling to recover from Katrina when the oil spill hit last year.

“It was critical that we had a good year,” said Captain Louis Skrmetta. “After last year and the loss of business, the oil spill almost wiped us out.”

The number of passengers on the Ship Island ferries dropped by 80 percent during the oil spill last summer, so the owners signed up for the Vessels of Opportunity program, using boats designed to bring tourists to instead carry clean up crews to Ship Island.

“Without that contract, that clean-up contract carrying workers out to Ship Island, we would have gone into bankruptcy,” Skrmetta said.

But they weren’t worried when they filed their paperwork documenting oil spill losses with Ken Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

“Ken Feinberg was very clear back last year that Vessels of Opportunity money was not going to be deducted from people’s final claims,” pointed out Ship Island Excursions Lawyer Robert Wiygul.

But they said the claims office directly contradicted that policy.

“What happened to Ship Island Excursions was they deducted the Vessels of Opportunity charter money from their final claim, and I’ll tell you it is one of the most infuriating things I’ve ever run across as an attorney,” said Wiygul,.

“It was devastating,” added Skrmetta. “I mean we are barely hanging on by our fingernails with this business.

That’s when the operators of Ship Island Excursions emailed the Action Line, asking me to get in touch with Feinberg’s organization to get them to take another look at this situation.

And that’s what I did, sending the documents directly to his office in Washington. And they did take another look. But when they got in touch with these folks with a final offer, it left everybody here stunned.

“They called and said we’re gonna offer you — it was about 30 percent of what the actual loss to Pan Isles was, and it’s really an insult to Pan Isles,” said Wiygul.

“Our family is upset, and we’re going to fight this thing out,” Skrmetta said. “We’re not going to sit still for this. It’s an insult.”

I’ll ask Feinberg to conduct a realistic review of the settlement offer.

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