The full effects of the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast’s health, environment and economy may not be known for quite some time, but scientists at the University of South Alabama are addressing lingering questions through their research.
At a downtown Mobile, Alabama hotel on April 13, a panel of USA experts discussed their projects and some of their findings. The forum was co-sponsored by the university and the newly formed Coastal Alabama Leadership Council. You can view a recording of the event here, or download a list of the USA panelists and other university experts on the Gulf here.
“We were on the front lines and continue to be on the front lines,” said Russ Lea, the university’s vice president for research.
Since the spill, more than 20 USA researchers have been at work on more than $2.6 million in grants focused on post-oil spill impacts. Among the USA researchers’ efforts: training for peer-to-peer counseling; air testingof volatile organic compounds; the study of fishery habitats; and an assessment of the spill’s impact on Coastal Alabama property values.
For those working in the natural sciences, no data sent up alarms about immediate dangers to humans. Those studying social impacts, however, have a different story to tell.
Steven Picou, a professor of sociology who studied for more than two decades the impact of the Exxon Valdez spill, noted the difference between natural and man-made disasters, including hurricanes. After hurricanes, said Picou, an “all clear” is given to come back, repair and rebuild. But there is no “all clear” after an oil spill, and the mental health impacts can come in waves for years.
With the BP spill, there was frustration with the response, the concern over the dispersants, and agony surrounding the claims
process. Next, Picou said, will come the trauma of extended litigation. After the Exxon spill, the legal fights dragged on for 20 years.
Dr. Ron Franks, a professor of psychiatry and vice president for health sciences, said a typical grieving process can take two years, with initial trauma lasting about six months. But Franks predicts that, because of the lack of satisfying resolutions to questions about long-term impacts and because of the likelihood of prolonged media coverage of court battles, it will be at least four years for people to get beyond the mental health vulnerabilities exposed by the spill.
“It will be up to us to respond to the challenge,” Franks said.
A significant step in that response is the formation of the Coastal Alabama Leadership Council, which co-presented the April 13 forum. The Leadership Council, a non-profit coalition of regional leaders, is the direct outgrowth of the Coastal Recovery Commission of Alabama created by executive order of then Gov. Bob Riley. The Commission’s 2010 report, “A Roadmap to Resilience,” made one of its key recommendations the formation of a permanent group to carry forward “Roadmap” proposals. The new Council is that group.
Read more about the Coastal Recovery Commission in the overview column to the immediate right. And get caught up on the Commission’s process and the transition to the Coastal Alabama Leadership Council by watching the videos on the far right and by reading posts preceding this one.
For the Mobile Press-Register’s coverage of the April 14 forum, go here.