BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. — God only knows what will happen to churches and other nonprofit organizations who say they are struggling for survival because of the Gulf oil spill crisis.
Months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and its well started gushing oil, the British petroleum giant says it has yet to decide how to handle claims filed by religious groups and other charitable organizations that are endangered because people can no longer afford to contribute.
Pastor Dan Brown prays BP PLC comes up with a solution quickly: He said he filed a $50,000 claim last month over lost revenues at Anchor Assembly of God. His small, storefront church outlived Hurricane Katrina and is now struggling because of the oil crisis.
Shrimpers and oystermen left jobless by the oil spill in this seafood town can barely afford to feed their families and pay their boat loans, much less give money to their church, Brown said. Giving and tithing is down by $12,000 over the last few weeks, he said, and the oil spill will cost another $38,000 in lost revenues over the next year, making up the total of the church's claim.
"You can't tithe what you don't have," said Brown, whose congregation operates a food bank and gives away bread each Sunday to help struggling families. "We're fighting for our lives just like a business."
So are environmental groups and community service agencies that have either begun feeling a drop in revenues or fear one as the oil crisis drags on.
Darryl Willis, head of claims for BP, said Tuesday he was unaware of any claims filed by churches or nonprofits, and he doesn't know how such a case will be handled.
More than 42,000 checks totaling $130 million have been written to businesses and individuals, and BP repeatedly has said it would pay any legitimate claim linked to losses caused by the massive oil spill. But Willis said nonprofits are a gray area.
"I get the impact, people not working or being on this sort of fixed income during this period," Willis said during an interview. "(But) I don't know what the answer is. I would test the system and let us work through that process."
Brown's church, which draws about 70 people to worship on a good Sunday, might just be that test case. The preacher said his church filed its claim with BP on June 18 and is still waiting on an answer.
Mobile Baykeeper, a secular nonprofit that monitors coastal conditions and water quality in Mobile Bay, may soon be in the same line.
Casi Callaway, executive director of the organization, said donations from outside the coastal region have covered the group's $20,000 in expenses related to the oil spill so far. But membership renewals are way down, and she fears contributions will dry up once the oil spill crisis drops out of the headlines.
"Right now we're getting donations from all over the country, Canada, everywhere," said Callaway. "But we don't know about our 4,000 members and their financial condition. We're very worried about the long term, what it's going to look like."
Callaway said Mobile Baykeeper might file a claim soon, but the United Way of Baldwin County is waiting to see what happens during its fall fundraising campaign. The agency relies heavily on tourist-dependent businesses that are suffering because of a sharp drop in visitors. Executive director Rebecca Byrne is apprehensive.
The organization, which funds 43 community service agencies, raised $1,038,750 last year but was still short of its $1.1 million goal during the depths of the recession. This year could be even tougher, but Byrne is waiting to seek compensation from BP.
"I've got to document a loss, and at this point I can't do it. We knew last year with the economy it was going to be a tough time, and this year is a double whammy," she said. "I hope I don't have to file a claim, but I might."
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The 110-church Mobile Baptist Association isn't even thinking about a claim, despite a sharp decline in revenues both for the organization and its 25 member churches in the coastal regional, according to C. Thomas Wright, executive director of missions.
Churches that abide by biblical stewardship principles don't need help from BP because they often find "miraculous provision" for their needs, he said. There also are more practical problems to seeking compensation from BP, he said.
"In an already declining economy, documentation that the current reduction is directly caused by the spill is difficult and time-consuming with no promise of return," he said.
The Coastal Mississippi Healthcare Fund Inc., which funds indigent care and helps employees of the Singing River Hospital System in Gautier, Miss., isn't losing money so far — the oil has barely touched Mississippi in comparison to Alabama and Louisiana. Spokesman Richard Lucas said there's no way to say if it might file a claim if the worst happens, partly because of confusion over the claims process itself.
"There is just so much uncertainty over all of this," he said.
Willis, the BP claims chief, said organizations that need help shouldn't hesitate to ask for it by submitting a claim, even if the outcome is uncertain.
"I would say to the person or the organization, file one," Willis said.
Elswhere on the Gulf coast, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson visited Pensacola Beach on Saturday, her first trip to Florida since the April 20 rig explosion and her sixth trip to the Gulf.
Jackson watched as workers in yellow and orange vests flicked penny-sized gobs of tar into nets, sifting them to filter out the sand and smaller pieces of tar. Officials overseeing the cleanup showed her how the oil had been buried by successive waves of sand, and how more layers with tar were under the top layer of sand.
Jackson said that despite the level of contamination on the beaches, it should be up to local officials to decide whether they should be closed. Officials in Escambia County have posted oil warnings at beaches but not closed them.
"From a commonsense perspective there is nothing that I am going to be able to tell you in chemical lab that you can't learn about the safety of the water from a bathing purpose by looking at it and smelling it," she said.
Reporters pressed Jackson on whether she would wade into the water Saturday based on what she had seen.
"I would not go into the water today," she said.
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