To clean the air, communities grab a bucket
For people living near oil refineries or industrial plants, the signs can be obvious: strange odors, particles clouding up windows, and high rates of respiratory illness. But residents have a tough time getting industry - or even government - to do anything.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
So that is why they're turning to an unlikely solution: a five-gallon bucket equipped with a sturdy plastic bag and a hand-held vacuum pump. The items are the basis of a simple air-sampling device that is, increasingly, empowering communities from Norco, La., to Cuddalore, India.
Residents take air samples with a bucket provided by an international environmental group called the Bucket Brigade, then have it analyzed at a lab. Results arrive a few weeks later. Armed with hard data, community activists can more easily educate the public and lobby industries and governments to make improvements.
The goal of the Brigade "is to get the polluting companies to clean up or shut down," says Denny Larson, developer of the Bucket Brigade concept.
The test results put a facility in an awkward position, he adds. "Just by introducing that very scientific piece of data, facilities and agencies are now in the position where the only way to refute that data is to actually take a test, too."
The Bucket Brigade was launched in 1995 in San Francisco and recently branched out overseas in places like South Africa, England, and the Philippines. The decentralized organization is affiliated with the Global Community Monitor, an environmental group based in San Francisco. Larson and his colleagues train community activists, who learn to partner with local groups that have the money and know-how to continue sustaining their efforts.
The newest Brigade division abroad, in Cuddalore, started up just weeks ago. After a few days of basic training, the residents of this agricultural and fishing village got to work. They had long worried about the effects of pollution from nearby chemical plants. They took air samples, and the results provided them with their first proof that the plants were indeed poisoning the air.
"It's a pretty bad situation over there," says Mr. Larson, also director of Global Community Monitor. "The results were orders of magnitude worse than we've ever collected, even, say, in Africa. These had 10 and 100 times higher levels of chemicals than we'd ever found in the air before."
With their new data, community activists plan to begin educating the public and lobbying for changes.
They hope India will benefit, just as the community of Norco did a few years ago. Residents who lived between the Motiva oil refinery, owned by Shell, and a Shell chemical plant had been complaining about air quality and asking for a property buyout since an explosion in the neighborhood killed two people in 1973.
"It just fell on deaf ears," says Iris Carter, a former resident of Norco.
Refinery representatives not only refused to consider buying the properties, she says, they also said there was no need to set up air monitors to check claims of hazardous chemicals in the air.
This is typical behavior, says Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. "Everywhere in the US and certainly other countries, there is a willful lack of information about what is in these communities," she says. "Why? Because [the industries] don't want to know."
When Norco residents began working with the Brigade in 1998, they gathered evidence about their air that the facilities had refused to provide. Having hard data not only boosted their bargaining position, it also gave them confidence when confronting refinery officials.