The mental health impact of the BP oil spill 10 years later

Apr 13, 2020

An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR's effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.

This month marks 10 years since the BP Gulf oil spill. Over the past four months, the APR news team has been following up on issues related to this disaster. That includes speaking again with people we met back in 2010 during APR’s national award-winning series “Oil & Water.” Ten years after the spill, one of those issues appears to be the mental health impact of the spill.

“I can tell you as a psychiatrist…you didn’t need to be a psychiatrist. You could feel the anxiety and the dread,” said Dr. Richard Powers, who was Medical Director for the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Back in 2010 Byron Dunn was with the business support group Alabama Technology Network.

“Some of them were so overwhelmed, they couldn’t even tell you their name,” he said.

Powers and Dunn held different jobs, but both were along the Gulf coast for the same reason. Ten years after the spill, we sat down with Powers at his office in Birmingham. Even a decade later, Powers said it was the stress among Gulf coast residents he remembers most.

“You have to remember there was the fire, and the release, and then there was a period where there was no oil, but it was coming,” Powers said. “So, people had a long time to worry about that.”

Dr. Robert Powers, formerly Medical Director for the Alabama Department of Public Health
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“Well, I would be looking for increased risk of depression, substance abuse,” he recalled back in 2010. “I’d be looking for more conduct disorder in kids.”

It was stories like these that Powers was looking for during the 2010 Oil Spill Recovery conference. He’d seen the bad reactions of people caught up in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Ten years ago, he told APR he had one thing in particular he was watching out for.

“We are concerned about persons becoming so desperate, that they act to harm themselves,” he said.

He didn’t have to wait long.

"Right around this time, the media was all over the coast, and also right around this time, there was the suicide of a fairly well known boat captain,” Powers said. “And, that petrified everybody.’’

“I actually thought Allen fell off the boat, because he was somewhat notoriously clumsy,” Tracey Kruse said.

She and her husband Allen ran a charter boat business. Their boat was the "Rookie." We spoke with her in 2010.

“As soon as I hung up the phone with him, my phone rang again, and it was sister, and I could tell she was just in a panic,” Kruse recalled 10 years ago. “She kept saying ‘Don’t leave the house. Don’t leave the house. I’m gonna come there.’ And, I kept telling her, 'Tell me what?'…because she already knew. And, I kept telling her, 'Tell me…what’s wrong?' And she wouldn’t tell me. She said ‘I’m not going to tell you, until I get there. You just need to stay home.’ So, I called my brother-in-law, because I knew he would tell me…and he told me.”

“And the first thing I said was, They’re wrong,'” Kruse said. “'He did not do that.' Because Allen wasn’t that…that was not him. He was not that person. But Joe, he told me. He said it’s true.”

“It was a horrible event,” Powers said,“but I think it was wake-up call for the stress people were experiencing."

APR's attempts to contact Kruse for a follow-up interview went unanswered.

“[Of] course, when it happened it was terrible to watch,” Dunn said.

While Powers was gathering data on mental health issues, Dunn was in much the same boat. He wasn’t a psychiatrist, but Dunn was hearing many of the same stories that haunt him to this day. One was about shrimp boat captain in particular.

Shrimping waters off the coast had been closed to the oil spill. Dunn’s eyes welled up he recalled what the fisherman had to say about his teenaged children.

“They’re asking me…they want to make plans to go to college next year,” Dunn said. “I don’t even know if we’re going to have a home next year.”

The commercial fishing docks along Bayou LeBatre
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

In 2010, dealing with mental issues didn’t stop there. Dunn recalls sitting in one meeting on depression led by a co-worker.

“And, she started going through…people want to be alone, they don’t want to talk to anybody, they want to sleep a lot, and she’s going down this list and I was hitting seven out of nine of them myself, just because of the stress of what I was doing and hearing these stories one after another after another,” Dunn said.

Powers said studies of the BP oil spill and other man-made disasters show that even after 10 years, the mental health scars still appear to be there.

“And, I think the studies show that people who went the stress and distress of potentially catastrophic environmental disaster, probably have increased risk of depression and anxiety, and perhaps alcohol use, I’m not sure,” he said.

Powers said he'd like to see more data specifically about Gulf coast residents, but that data appears hard to come by. There may be a reason for this, and Powers isn’t happy about it.

“The places that took the hit where Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama,” he said. “So, all the dollars from those settlements should have gone either to do research with those populations or build infrastructure in those populations.”

That apparently didn’t happen. And it’s not the only example of BP settlement money going somewhere other than the Gulf coast.