Troubled Waters: Discussion with Cherri Foytlin on Holding the Oil Industry Accountable

Thrown into activism by the BP oil disaster, Cherri Foytlin has become a dedicated advocate for justice for Gulf Coast citizens, as demonstrated through her work with Gulf Change.  She recently spoke with Bridge the Gulf and the Institute for Southern Studies for the report Troubled Waters: Two Years After the BP Oil Disaster, a Struggling Gulf Coast Calls for National Leadership for Recovery.  Foytlin talked about how she’s been able to amplify the voices of overlooked Gulf residents, how she works to hold the oil industry accountable and why the health problems after the BP oil disaster need to be addressed immediately.

Bridge the Gulf / Institute for Southern Studies: Tell us a little about Rayne, La., where you live.

Cherri Foytlin: It’s the frog capital of the world.  It’s a fun place to live. But mainly it’s an oil worker’s town.  I’d say probably 70% of the people there directly work for the oil field. So we’re very much dependent on the oil industry.

BTG/ISS: And tell me a little bit more about your personal history. Because your husband is involved in the oil industry, and you’re like this anti-oil advocate.

Foytlin: My husband works in the oil field. And I don’t like to call myself an anti-oil advocate. Although a lot of times the work that I do pits me against the oil industry, only because of their lack of conscience with regards to the environment, and with regards to the oil workers and how they’re treated.

The first eleven people to die out there on the Deepwater Horizon were oil workers themselves, so it’s been a major part of my advocacy to keep them safe out there. Deepwater drilling is not safe.

Whereas I do ultimately believe that we absolutely need to move as quick as possible off of the oil industry, I also am very concerned about the communities that really depend on those dollars right now, since there’s no infrastructure in place to protect them.

BTG/ISS: What are some of the main issues you’re seeing in your community since the oil spill?

Foytlin: There’s been a lot of changes since the oil spill, mainly economically and culturally.  Also I’ve seen a lot of sicknesses, amongst the oil workers themselves that go out on the rigs, and with clean up workers, and with residents all along the Gulf Coast.

Economically, people were just on the edge, teetering, and the moratorium [on offshore drilling imposed after the Deepwater Horizon explosion] was the thing that kind of knocked them over. That’s a major thing in our area, foreclosures, businesses that have gone under, and then whole families that have been displaced, moved away. And we’re a very unique culture, mostly Cajun community. So that culture has already been decimated in some ways.

But also culturally, there’s more despair than I’ve seen. Voiceless people, you know? It’s been four hurricanes and a major oil spill, the moratorium, and a tornado in our town on top of it. That’s a lot in five years time for people to deal with.

BTG/ISS: Speaking of health concerns, have you been sick?

Foytlin: In September 2010, I jumped in the water and I ended up coming home really sick, like ridiculously sick.  My doctor couldn’t help me. I took antibiotics and they didn’t work. And I was really worried for my life. I still am, to some degree, because I still have really powerful headaches sometimes and I get dizzy and there’s no way that I know of to fix it in an easy way.

So I’m still dealing with that, but you know for the most part I’m better. But I knew that the sickness that people were talking about was a real thing and I knew it was a scary thing.

BTG/ISS: What do you think is missing from the conversation around all these issues?

Foytlin: Missing from the conversation is the people that are involved, the people that really are in these communities that are going to live in these communities past the time that everybody else leaves. FEMA will be gone, BP will be gone and those communities will still be there.

You know one of the things that really bothers me is every time that there’s some kind of a catastrophe they come in and they sort of throw down, “OK, here’s what you’re going to do.” They never come in and say, “What do you need to rebuild your life?”  They come in and they try to give us things that aren’t always in the best interests of the people here.

Work with the community and community organizations that are already on the ground. You can come ask them, and they’ll tell you exactly what they need.

BTG/ISS: What could the President or Congress do to really address these issues?

Foytlin: They could hold industry accountable. That’s one huge thing.

And what Congress and the President could do is open their eyes, be truthful with themselves and honest, and come and ask the people what they need, and try to work from that in a realistic way. No sugar coating. That’s the problem. Everybody wants to wants it look good for a PR campaign.  But human life is not a PR campaign, it’s just life, and it should be put over the profit of a few people.

BTG/ISS: Will you talk about the state of democracy and that mistrust of elected officials?

Foytlin: The President came out on national TV in August of 2010, and he said that 75% of the oil was gone. And within hours of that broadcast, I had been standing in the Gulf of Mexico surrounded by oil. Not just a little oil, it was a lot oil.  I was just amazed that they could actually get away with that. And it really made me question not just the spill but I mean, what else were they lying about?  The Iraq war, climate change, all this stuff? And once I started investigating, I realized that yeah, they had been, and I had been asleep at the wheel.

BTG/ISS: Dream big for a minute and think about your vision for your community.

Foytlin: The water would be clean again, the seafood would be good, and people would be healthy. Everybody would understand how much value they have on this earth and to their communities.  People would be engaged in their communities, really building, you know?  Everybody would be hopeful.

I don’t think we’re ever going to see Utopia.  But I want the kind of world like I try to train my kids to be.  I tell ‘em to be fair, be honest, be good, be truthful, and use your own brain and not to muddy up the earth, not to throw your stuff around, to take care of things. That’s what I try to teach my kids to do, that’s what I want to see in the rest of the world.

BTG/ISS: What motivates you to do this work every day?

Foytlin: My kids. I want to give them the world, I do.  A good world, you know, a good, clean, safe environment, the best education, and a chance to make it and to be happy and healthy. I hope that they never have that day when they wake up and realize that they don’t have a voice and they’re not as valuable as someone else based on the dollar.

BTG/ISS: How does spirituality play a role in your activism?

Foytlin: For me, I feel really connected to the earth.  I’m Native American and I don’t know if it comes by us naturally or if it’s just the way I was raised. I was raised in Oklahoma, around Native American people.  I feel this connection to the earth, and to the earth as a part of the universe, which is a part of God.

Just take Christianity, for example.  If you’ve ever read the Bible, it very clearly says that we’ve been made stewards of the earth, and it very clearly says what Jesus asked us to do for each other.  I am just not exactly sure how you can be a Christian or believe in creation and not protect that creation as God himself. But that’s just my interpretation.

BTG/ISS: Anything else you want to add?

Foytlin: I just want to add that, man, we really got to start loving each other.  And we really got to start standing up for each other, and for justice, and our country, because nobody else is going to do it. There’s just us and we got to stick together. No matter who you are just love each other.  That’s it.

iss report coverInterview conducted by Ada McMahon.  The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Download the Troubled Waters report from Institute for Southern Studies.

Read and watch more interviews with Gulf Coast community leaders.

This content was produced by Bridge the Gulf Project and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, in collaboration with the Institute for Southern Studies.