BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg is followed by the news media as he and other BP representative leave the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 16, 2010, after a meeting with President Barack Obama

*During BP’s apology to the American people today for causing the worst environmental accident in the nation’s history, the company’s chairman sparked even more outrage when he referred to those affected by the disaster as “the small people.” 

Following a four-hour meeting today with President Barack Obama, BP agreed to set up a $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said BP is suspending its dividends to shareholders to help pay for the costs, and will provide a separate $100 million fund to compensate oil rig workers laid off as a result of Obama’s six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. 

But in his statement today following the meeting, Svanberg further angered victims of the spill by calling them “the small people,” which appears to belittle their importance. He said: “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are – are greedy companies or don’t care, but that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people.” 

“We’re not small people. We’re human beings. They’re no greater than us,” Justin Taffinder of New Orleans told the Associated Press. “We don’t bow down to them. We don’t pray to them.” 

Terry Hanners, who is retired from state and federal law enforcement and has a small construction company in Gulf Shores, Ala., said the “small people” remark revealed something about BP’s frame of mind. 

“These BP people I’ve met are good folks. I’ve got a good rapport with them,” said Hanners, 74. “But BP does not care about us. They are so far above us. We are the nickel-and-dime folks of this world.” 

Asked about the BP chairman’s remark, BP spokesman Toby Odone told The Associated Press in an e-mail that “it is clear that what he means is that he cares about local businesses and local people. This was a slip in translation.” 

BP’s April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and unleashed a flood of oil that has yet to be stemmed. 

Obama BP would pay $5 billion a year over the next four years to set up the $20 billion fund, which will be directed by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw payments to families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. There will be a three-member panel to adjudicate claims that are turned down.

“The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them,” Obama said. “This $20 billion amount will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored.” 

He emphasized that the $20 billion was “not a cap” and that BP would pay more if necessary.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy