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Contested Uncertainty and the BP Catastrophe: Lessons from the Valdez Disaster* Dr. J. Steven Picou Professor of Sociology University of South Alabama Presentation given to the Little Lagoon Preservation Society, Jan. 18, 2011. Background. Over the last two decades:

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Contested Uncertainty and the BP Catastrophe: Lessons from the Valdez Disaster*Dr. J. Steven PicouProfessor of SociologyUniversity of South AlabamaPresentation given to the Little Lagoon Preservation Society, Jan. 18, 2011.


Over the last two decades:

  • Dr. Picou has studied the economic, social and psychological impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
  • He has conducted random surveys of commercial fishing communities and Alaska Native villages in the years 1989-1992, 1995-1997, 2000, 2006, and 2009. This research was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation.
  • He is still researching community recovery in Alaska and will be interviewing fishermen in 2012.
  • Conducting NSF Funded BP Impact Research.
overview of the evos
Overview of the EVOS
  • On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on a well-marked reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
  • The supertanker leaked 11 million gallons of oil into one of the most pristine ecosystems on the planet.
  • The amount of oil spilled has been recently debated, with some documents suggesting that 24 to 36 million gallons were actually released.
  • Nonetheless, long term ecological impacts still exist as oil remains and fisheries, marine mammals and other species are being effected.
community impacts documented in alaska
Community Impacts Documented in Alaska
  • The specific impacts include:
    • Chronic patterns of community disruption, resulting in the emergence of corrosive communities;
    • Resource-loss, Depression, Helplessness, Anxiety, Suicides;
    • Psychological stress, including symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD);
    • Breakdown of social relationships resulting in inadequate coping skills, further exacerbating chronic patterns of psychological stress.
    • Unfolding ecological impacts.
community impacts documented in alaska1
Community Impacts Documented in Alaska
  • These dramatic long-term impacts of technological disasters have been attributed to three primary factors for victims.
    • Concerns about government and corporate failure, resulting in loss of institutional trust;
    • Severe mental and physical health problems;
    • Continued reminders of the technological disaster and resulting toxic contamination are generated by toxic tort litigation and devastating “income loss spirals”.
economic loss spirals
Economic Loss Spirals
  • $155 million losses to PWS Fishery, 1989-1990 (Cohen, 1997).
  • 1989: Gain of $39,382 per fisher.
  • 1990-1994: Losses of $50,000 per year for 75% of Cordova fishers.
  • 2009: 40% of fishers report continuing economic losses.
  • Permit devaluations averaged $250,000.
chronic impacts of evos 2009
Chronic Impacts of EVOS, 2009
  • Community has become more fragmented 47%
  • Local economy has gotten worse 81%
  • Litigation caused unpleasant memories 76%
  • Supreme Court Decision unfair 92%
  • Money received allows recovery 14%
  • Friends drink too much because of EVOS 40%
traditional natural technological disaster stage models
Traditional Natural & Technological Disaster Stage Models*

Natural DisastersTechnological Disasters

Warning Warning

Threat Threat

Impact Impact


Rescue Rescue


Inventory Inventory


Remedy Remedy


Recovery Recovery


Rehabilitation Rehabilitation

*S.R Couch, 1996. “Environmental Contamination, Community transformation and The Centrulia Mine Fire” in J.K.Mitchell (ed.) The Long Road to Recovery. Tokyo. UN Press

corrosive community
Corrosive Community

The dysfunctional effects of technological disasters on impacted communities characterized by the breakdown of social relationships, the fragmentation of community groups, family conflict and the use of self-isolation as a primary coping strategy. The lack of sympathetic behavior from non-victims, combined with declining support capabilities of local mental health programs, results in a pattern of continuing deterioration of community culture and organization.

therapeutic community


Therapeutic Community*

The socially integrative effects disasters have on an impacted community in the aftermath of disaster characterized by an outpouring of altruistic feelings and behavior. The therapeutic community includes the generally sympathetic behavior on the part of non-victims which helps compensate for the sorrow and stress many community members are experiencing with an unexpected abundance of personal warmth and direct help.4

*Freudenberg, W.R. and T.R. Jones. 1991. “Attitudes and Stress in the Presence of Technological Disaster: A Test of the Supreme Court Hypothesis” Social Forces 69(4) 1143-1168.

the corrosive social cycle of disasters
The Corrosive Social Cycle of Disasters*









values and norms



*Picou, J.S. and B.K. Marshall. 2007. “Katrina as Paradigm Shift” In D. Brunsama, D. Overfelt and J.S. Picou. The Sociology of Katrina. Rowman-Littlefield Publishers.

the therapeutic cycle
The Therapeutic Cycle*

*Chamlee-Wright, Emily. 2006. After the Storm: Social Capital Regrouping in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. Global Prosperity Initiative. Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center, George Mason University.


April 21, 2010:

Deepwater Horizon


In a Wednesday, May 19, 2010 photo, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and La. Gov. Bobby Jindal tour through the Roseau Grasses that mark the coastline of Southeast Louisiana at Pass a Loutre at the mouth of the Mississippi River where oil has washed ashore. (AP Photo/The Times-Picayune, Ted Jackson)


West of the Pensacola Beach Gulf Fishing Pier the beaches along the 1000 block of Fort Pickens Road are covered with oil Wednesday afternoon, 6/23/2010.

(Bruce Graner/

The state's emergency management site posted this photo of a tar mat about 75 yards long and 12 feet wide, spotted today in the Ono Island channel in the Perdido Bay area. (Florida Department of Emergency Management)


Families Awaiting Word, April 22, 2010

the impacts of the bp spill
  • Regional Economic
  • Community Social Capital
  • Family Stability
  • Individual Mental & Physical Health
contested impacts of the bp spill
  • 185 million gallons?
  • 2 million gallons of dispersants?
  • Agonizing claims process?
  • Community, family and mental health impacts?
  • Seafood safety?
present sociological impacts formation of corrosive communities
Present Sociological Impacts:Formation of Corrosive Communities
  • Anger expressed at public meetings
  • Marginalization of groups due to the VOO Program/overt conflict
  • Increase in police calls over 100%
  • Increase in calls to local mental health agencies
  • Increase in DUI arrests
  • Increase in domestic violence
  • Increase health concerns
documentation of economic impacts
Documentation of Economic Impacts
  • Severe and serious for identified seasonal high-risk groups
    • Commercial fisher, charter boat operators, shrimpers, oyster harvesters, restaurant owners, real estate employees, souvenir shop owners, etc., etc.
  • Restaurants down 50-75%
  • Hotels, condos, cottages down 50-75%
  • Fishing/shrimping grounds closed
economic impacts cont
Economic Impacts, (cont.)
  • Estimates of losses for Gulf Coast communities = 10 billion dollars or more
  • Loss of tax revenues for communities
  • BP claims process confusing and slow
  • Hundreds of communities and millions of people are being impacted
present mental health impacts
Present Mental HealthImpacts
  • Severe depression documented across the Gulf Coast up 25%
  • Problems especially acute for minority communities, e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian’s and African-American
  • Crying and anxiety documented
  • Helplessness and fear for losing vessels, homes and businesses
  • Suicide of boat captain on 65th day/Navarre resident, June 17

“It’s not like Katrina, where we can say in a year or two or maybe three we will get our lives back together. Right now…It’s if we are never going to get our lives back together.”

St. Bernard Parish Resident USA Today, June 18.

quotes cont

“I just cry all the time. I can’t stop. My husband now works on the clean-up because he cannot shrimp. We have not talked to each other in a month. I do not think our marriage will survive the spill.”

Venice, LA resident, June 22

  • Over 350 lawsuits filed
  • Complex and long term litigation will result
  • Escrow account is a legal strategy
  • Waiver to litigate necessary for claimants
  • Contested “science” will emerge
columbia university survey
  • 26.6% may move
  • 70.2% avoided beach
  • 25.8% income decreased
  • 40.0% feel they were exposed to oil/dispersants
  • 32.6% children have physical health problems
nsf survey
  • PTSD higher in South Mobile County than Alaska
  • Economic and Health Concerns Predict PTSD
  • Research Documents Serious Mental Health Problems from BP Spill
  • Community, social and psychological impacts are serious and will be long-term (2-10 years)
  • Outreach mitigation strategies have begun
  • These include peer listener training, refocus of post-Katrina volunteer/faith-based organizations, and project rebound.
  • Over 400 peer listeners have been trained
  • Listeners are helpers trained in communication, observation and resource facilitation
  • Listeners support distressed victims and have referral skills
  • Start therapeutic cycle
  • Long-term challenge for coastal communities.