From Time:

When the Exxon Valdez ran ashore in Prince William Sound in 1989, the immediate focus was on the damage that millions of gallons of oil might do to the pristine Alaskan waters. And, indeed, the toll was terrible: an estimated 250,000 birds died because of the spill, and the Sound’s productive fisheries took years to fully recover from the pollution. Even today, you can find leftover oil on the rocky islands of the Sound.

Yet there was another long-lasting impact from the spill: the mental health of the nearby community. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, stress and divorce all skyrocketed in the wake of the disaster, and the wounds were slow to heal. A recent study found that levels of stress among those Alaskans who were involved in litigation over the oil spill were as high in 2009 as they were in 1991. The oil spill was, as sociologist Steven Picou termed it, a “constantly renewing disaster.”

Now, a year after the Gulf oil spill, there are concerns that even though the ecological effects of the accident aren’t as great as initially feared, residents along the coast might suffer the same fate their predecessors in Alaska did. A forthcoming study of Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill — conducted by Picou, Liesel Ritchie of the University of Colorado and Duane Gill of Oklahoma State University — found that one-fifth of respondents qualified as being under severe stress, and one-fourth were in moderate stress. Those numbers are comparable to stress levels in the Prince William Sound area a few months after the Valdez spill.

Those Gulf Coasters who had a connection to local resources, like fisherman, were even more likely to experience high levels of stress, as were people with low income levels and low levels of education. And if the trends observed in Alaska hold true for the Gulf Coast, significant levels of stress could continue for far longer. “Given the social scientific evidence amassed over the years in Prince William Sound, Alaska, we can only conclude that social disruption and psychological stress will characterize residents of Gulf Coast communities for decades to come,” the authors write.

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