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Psychological hazards: Toxic waste spills damage mind as well as body

9/30/2008 – Van Jensen, University Relations

The cooling towers of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station stand just visible in the distance from the Penn State Harrisburg campus where Marci Culley earned a Master of Community Psychology degree.

That setting — which in 1979 saw the worst nuclear power plant accident in U.S. history — was an ideal place of study for Culley, who became fascinated with the psychological impacts of hazardous waste disputes. Now an assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State, Culley specializes in the mental struggle faced by people who live in areas affected by toxic materials.

“People end up feeling violated twice,” Culley said. “They think there’s a system in place [to help them], and then they find out it doesn’t necessarily work like that. They can experience anxiety or even post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The case of Three Mile Island is a perfect example. While very few injuries and no immediate deaths were reported from the incident, people in the surrounding area experienced severe psychological trauma because the station operators and government agencies released little information to the public, Culley said.

When Culley decided to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, she ended up in the midst of yet another toxic waste imbroglio. Residents in nearby Sugar Creek, Mo., were complaining about having no voice in the cleanup of hazardous waste from a defunct oil refinery.
Again, Culley had an up-front view to the struggles of average people as they tried to gain information about the contamination plaguing their community. “I saw firsthand how they were continually coming up against barrier after barrier after barrier,” she said. “They wanted to be meaningfully engaged. Their struggle to navigate through was what really inspired my work.”

Culley found that the company that owned the refinery would work only with the Environmental Protection Agency in determining how to handle the cleanup. Local citizens had little or no say. Laws governing toxic waste cleanups typically don’t consider community input, Culley said, so residents have to work together and create new ways to have their voices heard.

In the case of both Three Mile Island and Sugar Creek, residents eventually did just that — they organized and sought media attention. While it was a painful experience for many, some reported positive growth in the long term, she said.

“At Three Mile Island, they talked a lot about having rose-colored glasses ripped off their faces,” said Culley, who attends a remembrance ceremony there every year. “They had to respond to the challenge, and overcoming it helped them.”