The environmental health disaster unfolding along the Gulf Coast has inspired ordinary people to fight for change.

A special Facing South investigation by Sue Sturgis

cherri_foytlin_ bp_bill.jpgWhen BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last April, the disaster sent shock waves through Cherri Foytlin's life, pushing the 38-year-old mother of six on a path of activism she had never imagined.

At the time the disaster struck, the Foytlins were just getting back on their feet after losing their home in Oklahoma to foreclosure. Foytlin's husband, an oil industry worker, moved the family to Louisiana to find a better job, and they ended up in Rayne, a small city in Acadia Parish 150 miles west of New Orleans. Her husband got hired as a service technician for offshore rigs, and Foytlin also found work as a reporter for a small-town newspaper.

"We were doing pretty good," Foytlin says.

So good that they even managed to buy a new house. But three days after the sale, the Obama administration called for a six-month moratorium on new deepwater projects until they could be proved safe -- and Foytlin's husband lost his job. They fell behind on their mortgage and were forced to use food stamps.

But Foytlin wasn't worried just about money: She also feared that stories of people affected by the spill weren't being told. She began visiting Gulf communities where pollution was washing ashore; when came home she suffered severe headaches and respiratory problems.

"It felt like I was breathing with only a small piece of my lungs," she says.

Her doctor diagnosed her with severe bronchitis, telling her it was one of the worst cases he had ever seen. But when she asked him to do tests to see if it was linked to chemical exposures, he refused to perform them.

That led her to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), a leading grassroots group in south Louisiana that agreed to do some tests. They discovered Foytlin's blood levels of ethylbenzene, a toxic chemical found in petroleum, were three times the national average. Ethylbenzene is known to cause eye and throat irritation and damage to the inner ear; it's also classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The discovery -- and the fear of her children ages 3 to 14 losing their mother too soon -- turned Foytlin into an outspoken activist. She's talked to federal officials and numerous reporters about what she and other Gulf residents are experiencing.

To make sure the media noticed, in March and April Foytlin walked all the way from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., where she joined the Power Shift climate protests calling for a shift to cleaner energy sources. (In the photo above from Power Shift, Foytlin is in the orange shirt at right.) She joined a group that presented BP with a bill for $9.9 billion -- the amount the company had initially anticipated writing off on its tax bill for the Gulf disaster. BP has since upped that amount to almost $13 billion.

For Foytlin, activism has become a life calling. "It's really a rescue mission for me," she says. "I can't see people suffer and do nothing."

subra-orr-lean-sampling.png'Accidental activists'

Foytlin's story echoes that of many Gulf residents have been spurred to action by the BP disaster. Riki Ott -- a marine toxicologist and former commercial fisher from Alaska who became an activist herself in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster -- describes them as "accidental activists."

"These are people who were minding their own business when something happened to them that made them into activists," Ott tells Facing South.

Ott has encountered many such newly engaged residents since BP's calamity. When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, Ott was on a tour for her book Not One Drop about the earlier oil spill in Alaska. She came to the Gulf Coast to share the lessons learned in the wake of that disaster, crisscrossing the region and meeting with concerned citizens.

People would often ask her what they should do. But Ott would turn the question back to them: What do they think should happen?

"Figuring out what to do together is the key," says Ott, who sees the Gulf disaster as an opportunity to engage more residents of the Deep South in the movement to challenge unaccountable corporations.

Many told Ott they wanted independent testing to see what kind of contamination they're being exposed to from the spill. Ott and others were able to hook them up with LEAN, which was founded 25 years ago to address industrial pollution.

The group jumped into action immediately after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, responding to concerns about a lack of protective gear for workers by purchasing and distributing about $12,000 worth of equipment themselves. LEAN also met with federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials after hearing stories about cleanup workers threatened with being fired for wearing protective equipment.

Meanwhile, Wilma Subra -- an award-winning environmental chemist who works with LEAN -- conducted environmental analyses to document spill-related contamination. She analyzed air monitoring test data and confirmed that Gulf Coast residents were being exposed to potentially dangerous levels of airborne contaminants. She also conducted independent tests that confirmed the presence of significant levels of oil pollution in coastal soils and plants as well as in sea life. (In the photo above, that's Subra collecting samples with Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper Paul Orr.)

She's also been sampling the blood of cleanup workers and coastal residents -- and finding unusually high levels of contaminants associated with petroleum pollution in people's bodies.

"We are gathering evidence that I don't believe you can dismiss," says Marylee Orr, LEAN's executive director.

Gulf Summit Pranksters.jpgA lifelong fight

Carrying out their own scientific tests is just one of an array of strategies the Gulf's grassroots groups are using to channel community anger towards long-term solutions.

There's certainly plenty of anger: When BP claims czar Kenneth Feinberg spoke in New Orleans on the one-year anniversary of the disaster, one man spoke for many when he yelled, "We're sick and this is what happened to us. We've been poisoned by BP."

But getting one's voice heard -- especially when facing the well-oiled machine of the Gulf energy lobby -- can require using some creativity.

That was the approach used by two men at the high-powered Gulf Coast Leadership Summit last week (photo above). They called an impromptu press conference, one claiming to be a federal Department of Health and Human Service staffer who announced a ban on chemical dispersants, and another who said he was a spokesperson for BP, which was offering to pay for free medical clinics for those sickened by the spill.

But it turned out the men were imposters, and the press conference was actually a piece of political theater organized by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a grassroots group based in New Orleans that's dedicated to fighting industrial pollution, with help from the Yes Lab, a project that helps activist groups get media attention in creative ways.

"This action was all about highlighting the fact that people are truly sick and the government and BP are just standing by," says Bucket Brigade Executive Director Anne Rolfes.

After months of official silence, it appears that all the activism around spill-related health concerns may finally be getting some high-level attention. At last week's panel discussion with Feinberg in New Orleans, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) pledged to follow up with BP on medical claims. She also said she's planning to hold a meeting specifically to address health problems related to the spill.

In the meantime, Foytlin -- and many other concerned Gulf Coast citizens like her -- have no intention of letting up. Though she once thought her walk to Washington would be her last act as an activist, Foytlin says she now realizes that it was really only the beginning of what promises to be a much longer struggle for a better life in the Gulf.

"We're going to keep fighting," says Foytlin. "This is going to be a lifelong project for me."

* * *

Sue Sturgis is an investigative reporter and editorial director of Facing South. This is the final installment in an in-depth, week-long series by Sturgis and Facing South Publisher Chris Kromm on the growing health crisis in the Gulf in the wake of the BP disaster and the government's failure to respond adequately. To read the previous installments, click here, here, here and here.

* * *

PHOTOS: Power Shift protest by Ada McMahon of Bridge the Gulf; LEAN environmental sampling mission photo by LEAN; fake press conference at Gulf Coast Leadership Summit by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade via Flickr.