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
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
"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
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
Faust, the health department spokeswoman, said she was not aware of any
discussion of filing suit against BP to compel payment of the mental
"We're very hopeful that BP will fund this," she said.