When the BP Oil Spill grew from a spill to a full-fledged disaster, advice from Alaska’s Exxon Valdez communities began pouring in. Among the most fervently shared lessons were warnings about the emotional and mental health impacts we could expect to see. One year and three months later, these lessons are playing out here.
Visit any impacted parish and talk with people who live there. You’ll find that anxiety and stress are soaring. “People are depressed and angry at each other,” reported one respondent from St. Bernard Parish in LABB’s Health and Economic Impact Survey after the oil spill. Similar stories are coming from Grand Isle.
On Saturday, I participated in a workshop there sponsored by the Mind-Body Center of Louisiana. The goal of their workshop was to help people “learn mind-body skills for relaxation and stress reduction.” These workshops are needed all over the state.
I’ve known women along the Mississippi River who’ve taken anti-anxiety medication for 20 years. The reason? The refinery next door has an accident problem, and they can’t live with the stress. Their doctors prescribed something years ago. The refinery keeps having problems, and so the prescriptions continue. Gaynel Johnson of Norco described to me how she never understood her brother’s post-traumatic stress disorder after Vietnam. Get over it, “give it to God,” she would say. “But after the Shell explosion, I understood what they meant. Because now, every time I hear a car door slam, I jump.”
The BP Oil Spill has created an entirely new group of people harmed by the oil industry. Communities along Cancer Alley have been suffering strange illnesses, respiratory illnesses and emotional trauma for 50 years. These externalized costs are ignored by politicians who defend industry in this state. What does it do to a fisherman with no income, still awaiting claims payments, filled with shame at his unemployment to see Sen. Mary Landrieu or Rep. Steve Scalise on TV saying how good the industry is for the state?
The Mind-Body Center is working valiantly to help people clean up the emotional mess BP left behind. But there are hundreds, maybe thousands of others. Who will clean up after Exxon, Shell, Valero, Marathon, Conoco-Phillips and Murphy Oil?