Wilma Subra

Wilma Subra is a tough grandma in New Iberia, Louisiana who has worked to empower communities suffering from environmental injustices for more than 30 years. In 1981, she formed the Subra Company, a chemical lab and environmental consulting firm that helps communities fight chemical industry threats. She has represented neighborhoods suffering from illnesses caused by paper mills, industrial facilities, oil refineries, chemical plants, landfills and hazardous waste sites and has helped them identify the sources of their symptoms. She has never turned anyone down and has even risked getting shot at to continue her work.

Subra has investigated everything from natural gas drilling in Texas and Wyoming to polluted shipyards in San Francisco. She was spurred to create her own company after being frustrated with the political holds on her findings in the EPA Love Canal Project and ever since has sought full disclosure with communities. She empowers ordinary individuals by educating them and then training them to monitor plant emissions so they can take on the fight against their polluters.

Subra’s latest work includes studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. She received many complaints about headaches, dizziness, stinging eyes, and breathing difficulties after the spill and joined with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network to make BP provide respirators and protective gear to the exposed population. She says that BP oil is still present in the Gulf region and washes onshore- as a result, she has engaged in a 5 year study of the health impacts of eating seafood from the Gulf area.

Subra has also helped remediate and redevelop the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Superfund Site in San Francisco and search for shelter for people affected by the Mississippi River flooding. She regards her greatest achievement as closing down an oil waste incinerator in Amelia, Louisiana. Because of all of her efforts, Wilma Subra received the 1999 MacArthur Genius Grant and was honored at the 9th Annual Global Exchange Human Rights Award Gala. While many of her efforts may have put her in harm’s way, there’s no sign of Subra giving up any time soon.

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Cherri Foytlin

Almost one year after the April 20th Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico (where up to 2,500,000 gallons of oil gushed each day for 88 days straight, covering hundreds of square miles of ocean surface with oil), Cherri Foytlin embarked on a 1,243 mile walk from New Orleans to DC to raise awareness for the continuing crisis in the Gulf. While national attention on the Gulf has dwindled and the Obama administration has approved its fourth deepwater drilling permit after a nearly year-long moratorium, Cherri’s family and neighbors are still struggling with the oil spill’s aftermath. Her family has lost $45,000 in income (her husband was an offshore oil worker), she has elevated levels of crude oil toxins in her blood and marine life in the Gulf  is still washing ashore dead, some covered in oil.

Cherri believes that the residents of Louisiana whose incomes depended on the Gulf have been unfairly punished by the spill’s resulting economic depression, bearing the burden while corporation executives continue to receive bonuses. She’s angry that the claims process for lost wages is slow and only set to cover 9,000 out of 23,000 jobless oil workers. She feels that her right to clean water and air has been threatened by the spill and cleanup. She’s furious that the EPA allowed the use of corexit, an oil dispersant banned in the UK and linked to health problems after the Exxon Valdez spill, and that they’re now denying the possibility that it’s making her community sick. She’s distraught that the Gulf ecosystem is incredibly destroyed and that baby dolphins, sea turtles, birds, and other marine life are dying.

Cherri wants to meet President Obama and legislators this week to encourage a bill that would protect clean-up workers and area residents from negative health effects after the spill. She wants a systematic screening and diagnosis process for people who believe they’ve been affected. She also wants stricter drilling standards and greater oversight, which she believes would have prevented the spill if in place. She views this walk as her final attempt to gain Obama’s attention after pleading to him last year on CNN to come down and visit the individuals affected by the disaster. She also considers her efforts to be part of an enduring mission to encourage citizen action and reclaim people’s power (just what this blog loves! :)). Cherri says:

“This is a pilgrimage of love for the people of the Gulf. I am taking their concerns about health, the economy, the environment and the claims process to the president of the United States. My walk is a universal and non-partisan event; it is about preserving our civil rights as a nation, and our human rights as a global community.

In the past, many of us have chosen not to participate in solving the issues of our day, only because we believe the causes are too many, or worse, we believe ourselves to be ineffective in their solution. This, my friends, is a great lie. Our lives are not rigid institutions of resignation and hopelessness. In truth, our country and our world is whatever we choose it to be, and everyday more and more people are making brand new choices.”

Cherri’s walk serves a crucial reminder that just because the oil has stopped gushing and the media has decreased its coverage doesn’t mean that the crisis is in any way resolved. There are still 4 to 5 million gulf coast residents that have been exposed to dangerous levels of oil and dispersants (-Dr. Riki Ott, marine toxicologist) and the cleanup effort has produced “an experiment in the Gulf, the likes that no one has ever seen” (-Dr. Pincetich, marine toxicologist). She provides an inspirational call to action on behalf of the Gulf region to ensure that such disaster will not happen again.

Cherri in Washington DC (Sept. 2010):

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