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.
“We were on the front lines and continue to be on the front lines,” said Dr. 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 testing of 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.
Dr. 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 nonprofit 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.
USA President Gordon Moulton, who served on the board of the Coastal Recovery Commission, has now been selected to continue his service on the board of the new Coastal Alabama Leadership Council.
“The University of South Alabama was a crucial partner in the CRC’s work in 2010, and we need its expertise even more in the Leadership Council,” said Mobile Press-Register Publisher Ricky Mathews, chair of the Coastal Recovery Commission and newly formed Coastal Alabama Leadership Council.
Moulton said continuing collaboration fits with USA’s mission to “connect our researchers’ work directly to issues that affect our region.”
Other USA oil spill experts serving on the April 13 panel were Dr. Sean Powers, associate professor of marine sciences; Dr. Sytske Kimball, professor of meteorology and director of the Center for Hurricane Intensity and Landfall Investigation; Dr. Donald Epley, USA Distinguished Professor of Real Estate and director of the Center for Real Estate Studies; and Dr. Ronald Kiene, professor of marine sciences.
For the Mobile Press-Register’s coverage of the April 13 forum, visit http://blog.al.com/live/2011/04/understanding_of_gulf_oil_spil.html. Visit www.crcalabama.org to watch the full panel discussion on the recovery commission’s Web site.