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History of the Bucket

This archive photo shows former Norco resident Bessie Smith taking a bucket sample in her yard next to Shell's chemical plant.

The inspiration for an easy-to-use air sampling device came in 1995, when attorney Edward Masry (depicted in the movie "Erin Brockovich") got sick from fumes from a petroleum refinery he was suing on behalf of residents of Contra Costa County, Calif. When he called the local, state and federal environmental authorities, they told him that their monitors detected no problem. This angered Masry, whose clients were being exposed to toxic releases daily. He hired an environmental engineer to design a low-cost device, and the bucket was born.

The bucket is a $75 version of a much more expensive device, a $2,000 summa canister. Air is drawn into a Tedlar bag ($15), a non-reactive plastic, inside the bucket. The valve on the bag is then closed, and the bag is shipped overnight to a laboratory for analysis.

At $500 per sample, the lab analysis is the most expensive part of the operation. The air from the bag is run through a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer, which compares the "fingerprints" of the sample with the fingerprints of about 100 toxic gases in the computer library.

Working closely with Ed Masry, Denny Larson of Communities for a Better Environment, now director of Global Community Monitor,  promoted the use of the buckets in other communities exposed to toxic air emissions. Larson produced a community manual to educate fenceline neighbors on how to build and operate their own buckets. The manual helped spread the buckets throughout the refinery belt of Contra Costa County in California, and eventually to Louisiana.

The biggest hurdle was getting authorities, who belittled the idea of citizen bucket brigades, to accept the results. Larson met with EPA Region 9 officials, including then-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 approval, Larson was able to work with grassroots groups around the country to launch local bucket brigades.

Although started in California, the greatest success of the bucket has been in Louisiana. The largely African-American community of Mossville in Calcasieu Parish is surrounded by more than 53 industrial facilities, more than 40 of which are located within a 10-mile radius. Tired of being the victims of lackadaisical government enforcement, which tolerated frequent accidental toxic releases, Mossville’s fenceline neighbors organized and began taking samples using the bucket in September 1998.  The first samples detected violations of Louisiana standards for vinyl chloride, EDC and benzene, a carcinogen. Subsequent samples were even worse. One sample found benzene in excess of 220 times the state's standard.

This got the attention of the press and the enforcement authorities. The EPA Region 6 administrator made a public tour of the area. Region 6 moved in with their own monitoring devices that confirmed pollution levels even higher than the buckets had detected. Fines were levied and state-of-the-art fenceline monitoring devices were required of some polluters.

In 1999, Anne Rolfes moved back to Louisiana interested in doing work along Cancer Alley. She immediately learned about success the Mossville community had with the bucket, and was inspired to get buckets to more communities. After trying to get existing organizations to incorporate the bucket as a tool, she realized that there was a need for a new group dedicated to citizen monitoring. She founded the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in 2000. The Beldon Fund, which had been supporting Communities for a Better Environment, wrote the first check to the organization for $50,000.

Pollution has been significantly reduced in Louisiana, all of which stemmed from a few community activists with their buckets.