27 March 2004

The Bucket

A low-cost, powerful tool for environmental monitoring by communities poisoned by industrial facilities built near their homes.

About the Bucket:

“The EPA-approved ‘bucket’ is a simple, community friendly tool that fenceline neighbors use to take air samples. Taking air samples is a powerful experience for community members who are used to being ignored, overlooked, and disrespected by corporations and government. Dorothy Jenkins, President of Concerned Citizens of New Sarpy, used to call the refinery to complain about the odors. A low ranking operator would tell her not to worry, that the black plume of smoke that billowed for hours near her home was not harmful. Now Mrs. Jenkins has a bucket. When refinery managers and government regulators tell her that there is nothing to worry about, she answers, ‘Why, then, was there a benzene reading of 14 in my air sample, a reading that violates the state standards?’ The bucket gives community members power to hold institutions accountable to provide a safe and healthy environment.”

The Bucket

From the History of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade:

“The bucket brigades were started in 1995 by attorney Edward Masry (of Erin Brockovich fame) when both were made ill by fumes from a petroleum refinery he was suing on behalf of citizens of Contra Costa County, California. When he called the local, state and federal environmental authorities, they told him that their monitors detected no problem. This so angered Masry, whose clients were being exposed to these toxic releases daily, that he hired an environmental engineer to design a low cost device, the ‘bucket’, which the community could use to monitor their exposure for themselves. This set in motion a movement which would give communities living near refineries, chemical plants or other toxic air emitting sources, a chance to take on indifferent regulators and corporations who were telling them that there is no problem with the air they are breathing while they are choking and dying.

The ‘bucket’ is a low cost $75 version of the $2000 Suma canister used by government and industry and is simple to use. Suspect air is drawn into a Tedlar bag inside the bucket. The bag is then sealed and sent to a laboratory for analysis. The lab analysis is the most expensive part of the operation. For about $500 per sample, the contents of the bag are run through a GCMS (Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer), which compares the ‘fingerprints’ of the sample with the fingerprints of about 100 toxic gases in the computer library. The bag is non-reusable and cost about $15. In practice, much of this cost has been borne by charitable and government grants.

Working closely with Masry, Denny Larson proceeded to promote the use of these buckets in other communities exposed to refinery and other toxic air emissions. Larson hired a student intern to re-engineer the buckets in order to produce a community manual to educate fenceline neighbors that they could build and operate their own air monitoring systems. When completed, the manual helped spread the buckets throughout the refinery belt of Contra Costa County to 7 communities.

The biggest hurdle was getting the authorities, who belittled the idea of citizen bucket brigades, to accept the results. Larson met with EPA Region 9 officials, including the administrator, Felicia Marcus, in 1996 and asked the agency to approve and fund bucket air sampling. To its credit, EPA Region 9 invested in a quality assurance evaluation of the bucket results and ended up accepting them. With the EPA acceptance, Denny was able to work with grass roots groups around the country to launch local bucket brigades.”

Update: Read more about the bucket in this Christian Science Monitor article from April 1, 2004.