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Community Group: Mossville Environmental Action Now – MEAN, Inc.

For more information, contact MEAN.

People throughout Calcasieu Parish, the county in which Mossville is located, are ill in unusually high numbers. They believe that the concentration of petrochemical plants — 40 in a ten-mile radius — is the cause of the widespread illness. Conoco, Sasol, and PPG are three of the facilities that have long garnered complaints from local citizens. Though much of the parish population suffers the effects of industrial pollution, the African American citizens of Mossville bear a disproportionate share of the burden.

This background is an excerpt from the report Birds of Prey:

“Emancipated slaves founded Mossville after the Civil War, and the town was proudly born from African Americans’ first step toward equality. The presence of so many petrochemical facilities in Mossville today is another symbol of African American history, albeit a sad one. When the petrochemical industry first moved in, the African American population did not have the political power to prevent industrial juggernauts from gobbling up their land. The families of Mossville are paying a heavy price for that legacy to this day.

Imagine that it is the 1950’s and that you want to build a chemical plant in Louisiana. The Jim Crow laws of the segregated south are going strong, and African Americans do not have equal rights and certainly no political power. Would you choose to locate your plant in an area populated by influential white citizens where construction and operations would be subject to scrutiny, legal processes and oversight? Perhaps you would have to pay to relocate some of the families who live nearby to move them away from a future industrial neighbor.

The cheaper and more efficient option would be to put your plant in the area where the black people live, where people who demand scrutiny lack the power to make it happen. Many residents of Mossville believe that industry stands strong today because it profited from the repressive laws and social dictums of the segregated south.”

1999 Case Study

The following case study was written in late 1999 and describes the evolution of the bucket brigade in Mossville:

Mossville, Louisiana – The South’s First Community-based Air Sampling “Bucket Brigade” – Case Study


The Bucket Brigade is a community based air-sampling program, a tool that community members can use in their campaigns to clean up their air. For people who live near oil refineries and / or chemical plants, the buckets provide a way for citizens to immediately respond to bad odors or suspicious smoke lofting from facilities. The Bucket Brigade is an air sampling method that has been approved by the EPA. The air-monitoring bucket was invented by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) of California to prove air pollution problems that their members experienced. Many of CBE’s members live near refineries and chemical plants in the San Francisco Bay Area’s own cancer belt located in heavily industrialized Contra Costa County 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. CBE spent four years perfecting the technology and training methods to ensure that communities will be successful when they use the buckets to prove they are being polluted.

The bucket is very community friendly and easy to use. When you see or smell something in the air that seems suspicious, you simply take your bucket outside, turn a valve, turn on a tiny vacuum, and wait for a few minutes for the bucket to suck air into a special sample bag. You then send your sample off to a laboratory. You do not need to be a chemist, a lawyer, or an engineer to take bucket samples. Instead of just complaining to government agencies or the plants, you will have the proof. As the Mossville Environmental Action Now group (MEAN) has shown, when you are worried by plant activity, you can take matters into your own hands and take a bucket air sample.

Developing your local Bucket Brigade to be successful means working in partnership with CBE and NORAN experts like chemist Wilma Subra of New Iberia. Just like anything else, there is a “right” way and “wrong” way to the buckets. If one Bucket Brigade takes samples incorrectly, it could hurt other communities across the country. There are now Bucket Brigades happening in North Carolina, Illinois, Texas, Washington and even South Africa.

Toxic Alley in Mossville

The MEAN Bucket Brigade got started when Denny Larson of Communities for a Better Environment worked with residents of Mossville and Beth Zilbert to obtain funding for 10 buckets, 20 samples and CBE training. CBE then trained people on how to use them. The first bucket samples taken in Mossville and other areas in the parish were captured by local TV stations and newspapers. Under the guidance of CBE’s trainers, next door neighbors of industry like Mrs. Diane Prince and others are there, turning the valve, waiting for the air to be sucked into the bucket’s test bag. “Now we’ll have proof about what’s in this air,” Mrs. Prince says as she pats the bucket. She was right.

The very first samples taken by MEAN showed pollution levels that exceeded state health standards. MEAN now has scientific evidence to show what is in their air, and they have used it to pressure the EPA to take action in their community. Residents sent the air samples to EPA offices in Dallas and invited the Administrator for an extensive “toxic tour” to educate officials about pollution problems. This strategy goes over the head of Louisiana DEQ to the agency that delegates money and authority to the state. Under federal law, EPA can take back money and authority from the state agency if it does not do its job. This is something that actually strikes fear into the hearts of even the most pro-industry officials in Louisiana: losing control of their toxic paradise.

Shirley Johnson and Haki Vincent have been the primary bucket coordinators for MEAN. There are 10 bucket samplers in the parish and many more folks (known as “sniffers”) who report air pollution incidents and odors to them.

The Buckets Role in Forcing EPA Monitoring and Enforcement Armed with the evidence provided by Shirley and Haki’s bucket samples, MEAN has pressured the EPA to increase its own air sampling. EPA has increased its air monitoring activity in Mossville in two ways:

1. Air monitoring stations: The EPA has put in three temporary air monitors in Mossville. These stations logged similar results as the bucket samples, further supporting community complaints.

2. The TAGA truck. TAGA is an abbreviation for Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyst. The TAGA truck is like a very powerful bucket on wheels, a bucket that can provide an immediate air analysis. The EPA has one TAGA truck for the entire United States. Since MEAN’s Bucket Brigade proved the air in Mossville was polluted, EPA came to see for itself. In June, the TAGA truck rolled into town and took air samples. The TAGA truck found what the buckets had already proved: that the air in Mossville is loaded with toxins and that the companies there are violating state air standards.

In the last year in Calcasieu Parish, the EPA has taken action against a chemical plant and a refinery. MEAN’s Bucket Brigade provided EPA with the evidence and the kick they needed to focus on the community. EPA action in the area includes:

1. A $330,000 fine against Westlake Petrochemical. This inspection that triggered this fine was based on a bucket sample that showed benzene levels over 220 times the state health standard, as well as a home video showing days of huge flares from the plant. When EPA inspectors arrived they found a huge storage area for benzene soaked rags open to the air.

2. PPG plant in Mossville and Shell Chemical in Norco warned about its high number of accidents by the EPA office in Dallas. Bucket Brigade members have been preparing logbooks of flares, odors and explosions to forward to EPA on a regular basis. They also travel to Baton Rouge to catalogue the DEQ records on the almost daily accidents at local plants. The records are sent to the EPA.

Buckets as an Organizing Tool

The Bucket Brigade involves the help of many members of the community. In addition to the people who are trained as bucket samplers, there are many more people needed to be “sniffers”. “Sniffers” do just that , they sniff. They sniff for odors, they watch for smoke and flares, and they note everything in their sniffer logbooks. With notes on what a smell was like and when it happened, the sniffers help to compile a record on the companies’ operation. Their logs can be compared with official reports , like accidental release reports , to determine how the community is affected on a day to day basis. In Mossville, the sniffers worked with Shirley and Haki to alert them to strange odors and let them know when samples should be taken.

The Bucket Brigade Brings Groups Together

In Mossville, chemist Wilma Subra has spent many hours helping to explain what the lab analyses of the bucket results mean. In addition, she has explained the rules and the regulations of the EPA and DEQ, helping MEAN to better plan its strategy. Beth Zilbert, formerly of Greenpeace, helped develop the strategy and helped to keep the community organized. Denny Larson made trips from San Francisco to provide further training and support to the Bucket Brigade. When your community organizes a Bucket Brigade, it does not act alone. The Bucket Brigade brings with it support from other organizations, including other Bucket Brigade communities in Louisiana.

Success brings success.

Once people in your community see that what you are doing is having an effect, they want to join with you. Your attempts to get people involved may get a lot easier once your success with the buckets becomes apparent.

Money Money Money

Like everything else, the Bucket Brigade takes money. The lab analysis for one bucket sample can cost up to $500.00. In Mossville, a local law firm donated money to pay for lab analysis. MEAN has worked with Beth Zilbert to write grants for additional funding. Money is something your community has to think about, but there are resources out there, and we can help you get them.

Results from the MEAN Bucket Brigade

How to look at results and what they mean

In the span of eight months – from September 14, 1998 to April 9, 1999 , MEAN’s Bucket Brigade took ten air samples. These samples detected toxic chemicals in the air at levels that violate state standards. The detected chemicals include known cancer causing agents, including benzene, vinyl chloride and 1, 2 , Dichloroethane (EDC). Wilma Subra gave the explanation provided here on a Saturday morning, when she sat down with residents of Mossville to explain what the bucket results mean:

The state sets standards , called ambient air standards – to regulate the amount of pollution in the air. Chemicals in the air are not to be higher than the standard that the state sets. For benzene, vinyl chloride and EDC, the state standards are as follows:

Benzene 3.76 ppb
Vinyl Chloride .47 ppb
EDC .95 ppb

The ppb stands for parts per billion. This means that in every billion molecules, the state says that there can be no more than the designated number of molecules (.95 in the case of EDC) present in the air. The following bucket samples taken by MEAN show that the state standards are being seriously violated.

Date sample taken Result State standard:

9/14/98 on VCM Plant Road
– 4.7 ppb of vinyl chloride .47
-4.7 ppb of EDC .95

9/15/98 on S. Baudoin Rd.
– 22 ppb of benzene 3.76

2/28/99 on Guillory St.
– 87 ppb of vinyl chloride .47
-10 ppb of benzene 3.76

These three samples show that state standards are being seriously violated. But which company is violating the standard? There are many pieces of public information that MEAN used to find out which company is pouring these toxic chemicals into the air. By comparing public information with the bucket samples, they pieced together evidence just like detectives solving a mystery.

Available Public Information

1. Toxic Release Inventory (TRI)

Every July, companies file a mandatory report with the EPA. This report, referred to as the TRI, lists the amount in pounds of the company’s fugitive and stack emissions. It also lists the types of chemicals that the company emits. In the case of benzene, there are seven facilities in Mossville that report releasing benzene. All seven of these plants would be suspects. Citgo has the greatest amount of emissions, and would be the primary suspect.

2. Accidental Release Information

Companies are required to report accidents to the state Department of Environmental Quality. The rules of this reporting require the companies to call in accidents when they happen and to file a follow up report with the state. MEAN’s Bucket Brigade took samples on days when there was a particularly bad smell in the air. When they received the results of the sampling, they looked at the accidental release information to determine which company had an accident that day. A plant that had an accident on the same day that a noticeable odor was present is a likely candidate for the source of the odor and the dangerous health effects that go with it.

3. Wind direction

Wind direction is a crucial factor in determining which company is responsible for the harmful emissions. In an area like Mossville, with so many plants, knowing which way the wind is blowing can help to determine the source. If seven plants produce benzene and there is a strong wind from the south, the benzene in the air is likely coming from the plant or plants in the south.


MEAN has used the results from its bucket sampling to draw attention to their community’s toxic air and, for the first time ever, draw EPA attention and penalties. The Bucket Brigade can be used in a similar way in your community. The success of MEAN is just the beginning. With successful Bucket Brigades in your community and elsewhere, we in Louisiana and around the nation can create the healthy environment that we deserve.