As Louisiana officials warn of a possible mental health crisis in communities affected by the oil spill, BP has yet to respond to a month-old request from the Louisiana health department to fund emergency mental health programs. The impasse has prompted Louisiana to make an argument with significant implications for disputes over BP’s liability: that BP is responsible for mental health problems believed to be caused by the spill.
On Monday, in a letter to BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles, Louisiana Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine pressed his case for $10 million in funding for mental health services. “Our teams of counselors imbedded (sic) in the impacted communities are now warning us of an emerging behavioral health crisis,” Levine wrote. He stated that the teams were finding “palpable increases in anxiety, depression, stress, grief, excessive drinking, earlier drinking and suicide ideation.”
Levine wrote that these behaviors are “early warning signs of developing substance abuse and dependence, mental illness, suicide and familial breakdown including divorce, spouse abuse, and child abuse and neglect,” and advised that the coming months will prove critical in addressing the growing mental health issues in affected populations.
The primary initiative that Louisiana is calling on BP to fund is the Louisiana Spirit program, which began after Hurricane Katrina and has been restarted to provide crisis counseling and mental health outreach in communities affected by the spill. Although the program has already received $1 million from a $25 million block grant initially allocated by BP to Louisiana for spill response, health department spokeswoman Lisa Faust said this money is enough to last only into August.
Faust said that the department’s funding request would sustain the program for the next seven months, double the number of crisis counselors, and pay for medication for 2,000 people.
We at ProPublica have reached out to BP to ask for its reaction to Louisiana’s request, but have not yet received a response.
The Louisiana health department said it is interpreting BP’s lack of response as a denial of its first request in May, and that it will continue to press the company to pay for needed mental health services. Faust cited daytime drinking among unemployed fishermen as an example of the causal relationship between the spill and the problems being seen.
“We believe this is a direct impact of this spill, and BP has promised to make communities whole,” she said.
While the health department is making its case to the public, the courts tend to take a narrower view of liability, said David Owen, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. He said Louisiana would face an uphill battle should it file suit to compel payment by BP.
“In general, the law has been reluctant to find liability for mental suffering without accompanying physical suffering,” said Owen, an expert in tort law. People who suffered no physical injury – either from the spill itself or from stress-related ailments such as heart attacks or miscarriages – are usually not entitled to damages in a system that is designed to prevent businesses from being bankrupted by a flood of diffuse claims.
Owen said Louisiana would have to prove that the harm being suffered was a foreseeable consequence of BP’s negligence in allowing the spill to occur. Both of Louisiana’s letters to the company have cited previous reports – one about the mental health effects of the Exxon Valdez spill and another about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on children – that illustrated the predictable nature of mental health problems after environmental disasters.
Shortly after the spill, Louisiana announced its intention of suing BP, but it has not yet announced what types of damages it will seek. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Louisiana attorney general has hired Brad Marten, a plaintiff’s attorney who represented Alaska in the Exxon Valdez oil-spill litigation.
Faust, the health department spokeswoman, said she was not aware of any discussion of filing suit against BP to compel payment of the mental health request.
“We’re very hopeful that BP will fund this,” she said.