Not long after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, Cherri Foytlin asked President Barack Obama on CNN to come down to New Orleans and talk to her, so she could show him the damage that had been done, both environmentally and to her own health. When he didn’t make that visit, she decided she would take matters into her own hands and travel to the White House – on foot.
Foytlin began her 1,243-mile walk from New Orleans on Sunday morning with eight others who believe in her cause. It’s scheduled to stretch over 31 days, and others have pledged to join her on her walk when she arrives in their cities. Others have agreed to meet her in D.C.
The Rayne resident and her husband, Forest Foytlin, said their family – including six children – is approaching financial ruin as he continues to look for work in Gulf oil fields.
She said blood tests show that she has elevated levels of toxins that can be found in crude oil, and, like many residents of the oil and fishing towns in south Louisiana, Cherri Foytlin believes the nation and its political leaders aren’t paying enough attention to a struggling region in the aftermath of the spill.
“This is a pilgrimage of love for the people of the Gulf,” she said. “I am taking their concerns about health, the economy, the environment and the claims process to the president of the United States.”
The group arrived at the Gentilly Woods Harris Playground at 9 a.m., all wearing blue “Walk the Walk” t-shirts, and started their walk along U.S. 90 without much fanfare. Project Gulf Impact, an activism group that is making a documentary about the environmental crisis in the Gulf, linked up with Foytlin’s project and now makes up half the walkers. They followed her with two film cameras, and a vehicle following behind them.
The group is scheduled to arrive in the capital April 13. Foytlin said she has friends in D.C. trying to set up a meeting with Obama. She and her group also hope to spend several days meeting with federal officials and any other movers and shakers who will listen to their plight.
Among her top priorities is a bill to address health care needs for clean-up workers and Gulf residents who say they are suffering ill effects from exposure to the crude oil and dispersant.
Foytlin is not new to post-spill advocacy, having fought for the welfare of the families in the Gulf since the spill began. She has pleaded for Obama to restore the people’s faith in the government by supporting residents affected by the oil spill. The walk represents her biggest step to reach the administration.
Post-spill health issues continue to be a source of debate after the spill.
On one side is mounting anecdotal evidence of sick workers and Gulf residents complaining of maladies – particularly respiratory and skin ailments – that generally can be associated with organic compounds found in crude oil. Some scientists and physicians have weighed in with tests on samples of seafood, human blood and Gulf Coast soil that show elevated levels of some of the same toxins.
Foytlin said her symptoms have been mild, just tiredness and headaches (she and another affected walker are healthy enough to walk more than 30 miles a day), but she’s mostly concerned with how these toxins in her body may affect her in the future.
“More than anything, it’s like walking around with a ticking time bomb,” she said.
Yet state governments, the FDA and the seafood industry all vouch for the safety of the seafood supply, and the National Oil Spill Commission acknowledged in its final report, released in January, only that health issues and the perception of inadequate government action are matters of concern.
The environmental sciences division of the National Institutes of Health is in the early stages of a comprehensive study that will track as many as 25,000 clean-up workers for 10 years or more. It is billed as the most comprehensive health study ever conducted after a spill. The purpose is to discern any causal links between crude and dispersant exposure and medical conditions.