Date: 22 Mar 2014

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: The Trauma Signature of an Ecological Disaster

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Abstract

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon “British Petroleum (BP)” oil spill was a mega-disaster characterized as the petroleum industry’s largest-volume marine oil spill in history. Following a “wellhead blowout” that destroyed the drilling platform, 4.9 million barrels of petroleum flowed into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days and the spill expanded to cover 68,000 square miles of sea surface. However, despite the expansive scope of the event, systematic surveys of affected coastal populations found only modest effects on mental health and substance abuse. An established trauma signature (TSIG) methodology was used to examine the psychological consequences in relation to exposure to the unique constellation of hazards associated with the spill. A hazard profile, a matrix of psychological stressors, and a “trauma signature” summary for the affected Gulf Coast population—in terms of exposure to hazard, loss, and change—were created specifically for this human-generated ecological disaster. Psychological risk characteristics of this event included: human causation featuring corporate culpability, large spill volume, protracted duration, coastal contamination from petroleum products, severe ecological damage, disruption of Gulf Coast industries and tourism, and extensive media coverage. The multiple impact effect was notable due to prior exposure of the region to Hurricane Katrina. These stressors were counterbalanced by the relative absence of other prominent risks for distress and psychopathology. Coastal residents did not experience significant onshore spill-related mortality or severe injury, shortages of survival needs, disruption of vital services (health care, schools, utilities, communications, and transportation), loss of homes, population displacement, destruction of the built environment, or loss of social supports. Initial acute economic losses were partially offset by large-sum BP payments for cleanup and recovery of the coastal economy. Not only did Gulf Coast populations display remarkable resilience in the face of daunting challenges, the behavioral health impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill appears to have been blunted by the absence of major evidence-based risks for psychological distress and disorder, the exemplary response, and the infusion of economic resources.