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Voices of Water: Steve Picou

Dr. Steven Picou, Exxon Valdez oil spill expert and sociologist at the University of South Alabama

Steve PicouDr. Steven Picou forecasts fracture for gulf coast communities   © Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand

Few people are as qualified to comment on the true price that communities pay in the aftermath of an environmental disaster like the BP oil spill as Dr. Steven Picou. The insights provided by Picou's really gave shape to the voices of the wives, mothers, children and fishermen of the gulf coast that I have heard as I've explored this area in the aftermath of an environmental disaster.

Picou, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern Alabama, studied the community of Cordova, Alaska for twenty years after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Today, this truly insightful world expert on the sociology of natural and environmental disasters joined us at the Steiner Shipyard in Bayou La Batre in Alabama and lent his powerful and knowledgeable voice to a truly illuminating discussion about the current crisis facing the gulf coast.

After having spent so many decades studying this in Alaska with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, how do you feel about this happening in your own community?

I was in Panama City giving a seminar when we heard that there was oil on our beaches. We came home and immediately went out to the beach and yes there were tarballs and mats and then there were tourists taking pictures of the oil. Well that upset me and my wife. People come down to take pictures of the pristine sugar white beaches and colorful water. Now they were taking pictures of this poison on our beach. We left the beach and we have not been back since. 

Throughout our time in the gulf we been hearing time and time again about people’s fear of the unknown, which seems to have terrorized everybody. Tell me about the nature of this unknown. 

In Alaska, the herring fisheries collapsed four years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. They’ve never fished for herring since 1993. So this type of consequence is what people are fearing. The ecosystem will unfold over time and damages will be realized and of course a lot of these damages have serious economic concerns. It leads to a lack of trust. It leads to a breakdown of social relationships. It leads to people self-isolating in order to cope with their problems. So the loss of social capital, the loss of trust, the loss of meaning in one’s life causes serious problems with families, bankruptcies, divorce, other problems that are family related, and then of course at the basic level of individuals having severe mental health problems such as depression and constant high levels of anger.

So how are we using science to understand what's happening?

The important thing about science is that it has many faces, particularly when it comes to massive oil spills. I think we’re going to see in the next five years a battle about what is true. The Truth is going to be contested whether or not the claim is that there’s oil out there or if there’s dispersant out there or whether or not the oil's gone. The important thing with citizen science is that it creates a more democratic science. We have local people empowered to collect data and monitor the water. It brings meaning back to these victims.

Most of the work you’ve done has studied the impacts of oil spills. What about the impacts of degrading our most precious resource, water? 

The Alaskan natives describe the day of the oil spill in Prince William Sound as “the day the water died.” And when the water died their whole culture was attacked systematically. The loss of water is probably the most precious ecological loss that one can bear.

Sum up in one sentence what happens to the people when you destroy the environment. 

Once the ecology becomes poisoned it feeds back and poisons our social systems, our communities, our families and even our own sense of self.