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Gulf spill as stressful as Exxon Valdez for Alabamans

Doug O'Harra
Photo by Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

People who lived through the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill have experienced divorce, job loss, depression, financial problems -- the same sort of social disruption and psychological stress suffered by the residents of Cordova in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, according to a new study that focused on south Mobile County of Alabama.

The impacts will persist for years based on what has been learned about EVOS and how it forever changed the lives of many Prince William Sound residents, the authors said in this story.

"Just ask the residents of Cordova today whether they are over the Exxon Valdez," said study co-author Liesel Ritchie, assistant director for research of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center.

The Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and rupturing the seafloor wellhead almost one mile deep. By the time it was capped in July, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the ocean, the largest marine oil spill in history.

Alaska's disaster began when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bly Reef on March 24, 1989, dumping at least 260,000 barrels of North Slope crude into Prince William Sound and ultimately fouling 1,300 miles of shoreline.  

Two of the scientists working with Ritchie -- Duane Gill of Oklahoma State University and J. Steven Picou of the University of South Alabama -- also conducted a pioneering study of the intense stress caused by EVOS on residents of Cordova. The current research, largely sponsored by the National Science Foundation, will be published in American Behavioral Scientist and Contexts.

The scientists conducted a random telephone survey of adult resident of Bayu la Batre, Dauphin Island and smaller communities in September 2010. The technique was based on similar studies conducted after EVOS. Some 412 people responded, or about 46 percent of those contacted.

"Event-related psychological stress among residents of south Mobile County, five months after the BP oil spill, was similar to that of residents of Cordova five months after the Exxon Valdez," the authors wrote. "If the trends observed in Cordova hold true for Alabama, significant spill-related psychological stress can be expected to continue in south Mobile County over the next decade."

About 20 percent of the Alabama people were experiencing severe stress, and another 25 percent were reporting moderate stress. In Cordova, half of residents reported similar levels of stress by the end of summer in 1989.

Other findings:

  • One person in three experienced some type of exposure to oil, and such exposure was significantly related to higher levels of stress.
  • Two out of three reported money problems or other negative economic impacts, and more than half of those responding said they were worried about future economic impacts on their households.

"Given the social scientific evidence amassed over the years in Prince William Sound, Alaska, we can only conclude that social disruption and psychological stress will characterize residents of Gulf Coast communities for decades to come," the authors wrote here.

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com