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One Year Into the BP Oil Disaster,
Women Lead the Charge to Restore the Gulf Coast

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Tomorrow, April 20th, will mark the one-year anniversary of the BP drilling disaster, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and 172 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a year later. There’s a frenzy of media attention right now because it’s an “anniversary.” But by Thursday the press will have packed up and moved on. And so will most of the country. After all, the crisis is over–it’s been over for months now, right?

Wrong.

The BP oil “spill”–scientists from Tulane University referred to it as “a river of oil flowing from the earth’s crust at a rate of 240,000 gallons per day”–is among the worst environmental disasters our country has ever faced. To make matters worse, BP used 1.84 million gallons of a dispersant called Corexit to break up the oil. The residents of the Gulf Coast were never told that Corexit contains known human carcinogens and is banned in Europe.

I’ve spoken with residents–an oil rig worker’s wife; fishermen and women; a young father who jumped at the chance to earn good money as a BP clean-up worker–and heard the shocking truth: the oil is not gone, and people living in coastal communities are getting sick. Really sick. They’re suffering from severe respiratory illness, vomiting, bleeding from the nose and ears, skin lesions, and other frightening symptoms. The common thread among all these folks is that before their exposure to the oil and dispersant in the Gulf, they were healthy. But after going out in fishing boats, living in their coastal town, or cleaning up BP oil, they all developed strange symptoms they’d never experienced before. Many have been hospitalized, like Andre Gaines (below, left), a robust 27-year-old single-father of two small boys who had never been sick until he took a job as a BP clean-up worker. At first he was fine, but after a few months of working he ended up in the hospital, hooked up to an IV, unable to breathe. He’s out of the hospital now, but this once-healthy young man now suffers from severe headaches.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. Fishing families who have lived and worked in communities along the Gulf Coast for generations may have lost their livelihoods forever. In the same way that we run to a supermarket or get take-out, coastal families rely on the bountiful Gulf of Mexico for their daily sustenance. Now they’re concerned that the fish and shrimp they live on are contaminated with oil and are not being adequately tested.

It’s a grim picture. The American news media has been reluctant to cover the story. The folks who rely on Gulf Coast tourism for their livelihood don’t want the story to get out, either. And BP certainly doesn’t want the story to get out.

And yet there’s hope.

The people, and in particular the women living on the Gulf Coast are not giving up. They are speaking up to restore and preserve the land they love. Community leaders like Rosina Philippe (below), from the Atakapa-Ishak tribe in Grand Bayou Village, a tiny fishing village accessible only by boat located in the wetlands of Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans. Rosina’s indigenous community has been living on the bayou for centuries, and its members are dedicated to preserving the traditions of their ancestors, including the fishing, shrimping, oystering and crabbing that, until the oil disaster, provided their food and livelihood. Rosina is a passionate voice for her community, speaking out to Congress, the media, and anyone who will listen about how the oil disaster continues to threaten the very existence of her tribe.

Then there’s Cherri Foytlin (below), an oil worker’s wife-turned-activist and mother of six who last week completed a 1,243-mile walk to Washington, DC from New Orleans to raise awareness about the ongoing BP disaster. Cherri, a journalist, gifted speaker and storyteller from Rayne, Louisiana has become an outspoken moral voice for the right to clean air, clean water, and access to health care for Gulf Coast citizens. Cherri’s blood has been tested and shown to contain dangerously high levels of ethylbenzene and other chemicals present in BP crude.

MaryLee Orr (below), Founder of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (www.leanweb.org), is a leading advocate and expert on the environmental and economic impacts of the spill. Her grown sons, Michael and Paul, work alongside her. When MaryLee and her organization learned that BP had not equipped Gulf Coast clean-up workers with protective gear, LEAN stepped in, providing them with respirators and cartridges, gloves, sleeve protectors and booties. MaryLee has been on the frontlines of the health crisis, helping sick people get their blood tested and and find medical assistance, hosting food drives for fishing families, collecting and testing seafood in the Gulf, and much more.

MaryLee works closely with yet another remarkable Gulf Coast woman and hero, Wilma Subra (opening photo), an advisor to the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health. A pioneering independent environmental scientist, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, winner of the 2011 Human Rights Award, and 68-year-old grandmother, Wilma works tirelessly for those impacted by the BP oil disaster, tracking the environmental and human health effects of both the crude oil and the chemical dispersants used to break up the slick. Her blood testing of Gulf residents and clean-up workers as well as testing of local Gulf seafood reveal high levels of the same chemicals present in BP crude.

These amazing women, and many more like them across all five Gulf Coast states, are taking a stand for their communities and for their environment. And with them on our side, America’s Gulf Coast will not be forgotten.

Barbara Nonas is a contributing writer to WAT and a consultant for the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health (www.gulfcoastfund.org), a community-led philanthropy that provides support to over 200 grassroots organizations across all five Gulf Coast states.

Photo credits:
Opening photo of Wilma Subra by www.dubinskyphotography.com for LMRK.org/Leanweb.org
Great White Egret on Oil Boom by www.dubinskyphotography.com
Oil on Timbalier Bay by Jerry Moran, www.nativeneworleanian.com
Andre Gaines courtesy of www.bridgethegulfproject.com
Rosina Philippe courtesy of www.latimes.com
Cherri Foytlin courtesy of www.switchboard.nrdc.org
MaryLee Orr by www.dubinskyphotography.com for LMRK.org/Leanweb.org

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