PLAQUEMINE - Michael Heck and his fellow environmental activists have a new tool to use in their fight against air pollution: A sampling device built from a plastic bucket and a few pieces of tubing and valves.
Heck is now part of a growing "Bucket Brigade" that started in California and has found a real following in Louisiana. Heck and the Plaquemine group are joined by fellow Bucket Brigades in Norco, Mossville and Geismar.
The bucket "gives the community a reliable source to find out what they're breathing," Heck said. The bucket testers will not be affiliated with any environmental group, he said.
In Mossville, government agencies have used the Bucket Brigade results to order monitoring that resulted in fines for industries, said Denny Larson of the California-based Communities for a Better Environment.
The air samplers are basically plastic buckets with air-tight tops, some stainless steel tubes and valves, and a rubber tube connected to the top of the bucket. A simple computer keyboard vacuum is attached to the rubber tube, creating a vacuum inside the bucket. The low pressure inside the bucket helps an air sample flow into a specially designed plastic bag when the stainless steel valve is opened. Larson is the Johnny Appleseed of bucket testing. He will talk about the Bucket Brigade today as environmentalists gather for "Take Back Your Air Community Day" sponsored by the Louisiana Clean Air Project and hosted by Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.
The conference runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Embassy Suites Hotel, Constitution Avenue. Free youth sessions will begin at 9:30 a.m. Cost is $15 for adults. Citizen monitoring is needed because government agencies don't do enough monitoring around chemical plants and refineries, Larson said.
"If they did, there'd be violations every day of the week," Larson said.
"If they just have one or two notices of violations a year, heck, it's cheaper to pollute," Larson said.
Ed Flynn of the Louisiana Chemical Association said industry is always working to reduce emissions and live within permit limits.
Citizen-based monitoring, by buckets or other devices, is fine as long as the results are "scientific and the reliability of the buckets is verified," Flynn said.
Larson said EPA's Region 9, covering the West Coast, worked with the group to test the validity of the Bucket Brigade program. "We did side-by-side tests. ... We did that for about a year - we jumped through all kinds of hoops," Larson said.
Patricia Monahan of EPA Region 9 said "the buckets did pretty well. There were some inconsistencies, but nothing unusual.As a community empowerment tool, we have found it (Bucket Brigades) very useful. The purpose of the analysis (of a bucket sample) is not regulatory or enforcement purposes, but where further analysis is needed," Monahan said.
Region 9 has given out about $80,000 in grants to help cover costs of bucket brigade activities, Monahan said.
Louisiana's area EPA Region 6 sees some benefit it the concept, too. "We can't be there all the time. ... When the alarm goes off, they smell something, they can get a sample on the spot," said Teresa Cooks of the region's compliance assurance and enforcement division. Such samples can guide where further monitoring is needed, she said.
The buckets were born as part of a worker injury lawsuit against a San Francisco Bay area refinery. Larson said.
Don Brown, who worked for the refinery, was injured by a plant release. In an effort to gather evidence of releases by the plant, Brown worked with an engineer to "make something cheap and community-friendly. The idea was 'Lets arm the citizens around the facility'," Larson said.
An attorney paid for about 30 to go into the neighborhoods around the refinery and "citizens would report odors and they would take samples," Larson said.
The information gathered from those reports helped settle a lawsuit in Brown's favor, Larson said.
It costs about $125 in materials for a group to build the bucket, or buckets can be purchased completed from an at-risk youth group in California for $250, Larson said.
CBE has written a manual on how to operate the buckets and how to get the results tested.
Analysis of the sample is the big cost.
Some groups have used grants to help pay for the analyses of the bags, which can run between $250 and $500 per sample, depending on the detail of analysis, Larson said.
That is still much cheaper than paying a consulting firm to do it or buying the traditional stainless-steel testing equipment.
The brigades are more than a few testing buckets. Residents are also trained to keep "sniffer logs" of smells that float into their neighborhood. "If the sniffers feel an odor is particularly strong, they can call in a person with a bucket," Larson said.
Beth Zilbert, an environmental activist in Lake Charles, said her group took five "background" samples in the areas around chemical plants and found "benzene, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride above the state standards."Zilbert and others claim their bucket samples showing benzene levels 220 times the state health standard for benzene.
Shirley Johnson of Mossville said the Bucket Brigade helps gather "evidence of what we have been saying about the offsite impact local plants are having.We would prefer they correct it and then they would be good neighbors," Johnson said.
Larson said CBE does not go around selling buckets but waits for groups to contact it. "The only way it works" is when groups have to organize themselves and have a passion for the mission, Larson said.
In addition to California and Louisiana, brigades have been formed in Texas, Wyoming and Indiana.
GRAPHIC: Photo of Michael Heck of Plaquemine screwing the top onto a bucket that is part of an air sampling device that residents can use (by Mike Dunne)
LOAD-DATE: January 29, 2000, Mike Dunne