Journalism in the Public Interest

Warning of Looming Crisis, Louisiana Calls on BP to Fund Mental Health Programs

BP has not responded to a request for $10 million to help Louisiana deal with mental health problems that it blames on the oil spill. The state health department says it is seeing anxiety, excessive drinking and thoughts of suicide in affected communities.


Saul Hernandez, an oil skimming boat worker, walks past idle boats after they were forced to port because of Hurricane Alex on June 30, 2010 in Port Fourchon, Louisiana. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

 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.

If BP were serious about covering the problems caused by the spill, they would be writing checks to cover these types of costs without question.  How do you make a community whole once you have destroyed it??  BP has a direct responsibility to the people who livelihoods have been destroyed, who will no longer be able to maintain their businesses, those who are suffering grief, depression, loss of business, incomes, etc.  Bp is following a pattern set by the Exxon Valdez incident and I doubt they will offer compensation voluntarily…......look for extended lawsuits for every claim.

a sad Costa Rican

July 2, 2010, 10:52 p.m.

Since I read the first news of this disaster, I have been up to date about this issue.And something that upsets me a lot is BP`s attitude.  From what I have read, I have learned that they have been irresponsible.  They haven`t prevented any of the accidents they have faced.  They have had problems that they haven`t solved; and because of this there has been lots of pollution, death, environmental destruction…..  Many workers have passed away as a consequence of BP`s irresponsibility.Unfair. Money is not more important than people`s safety and lives.

James P Louviere

July 10, 2010, 11:22 a.m.

Louisiana’s tax base has been torpedoed by the Oil Spill.  Property taxes based on property values will sink like stones as people flee the poisonous atmosphere, the unemployment and the emotional distress spread.
Sales tax revenues from casinos, hotels, racetracks and restaurants collapse.  The Louisiana constitution forbids budget cutting everywhere except in hospitals and educational institutions (university systems included.)  So the cuts are in the heath and education sectors, where they are most vital for the wellbeing of the whole state, especially in this disaster.  I hope the outrage of the public will drive BP to cover costs for communities.  The Guide published by the victims of the Exxon (Google it) is a graphic description of what emotional impact a much smaller disaster caused.  That was 21 years ago, and the final settlement, after the US courts slashed the punitive damaged, left victims with an average pay-out of $15,000, minus legal fees.  Twenty one years of waiting for “justice,” and a pay-out averaging $15,000.  Don’t hold your breath as you wait for your check from BP!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Gulf Oil Spill

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf has had untold health, economic and environmental effects.

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