Clearing the Smokescreen Protecting Communities with Buckets of Air

While hungover Crescent City visitors sip chicory coffee and nibble at beignets, an unlikely tour bus packed full of environmental justice activists heads through the city and into the heart of “cancer alley”—the riverside stretch of power plants, oil refineries and other industries that harms the health of so many New Orleans-area residents. They’ve gathered to talk about the Bucket Brigades, a community organizing effort that’s gone global, defending neighborhoods worldwide from industrial pollution. Tour guide Ken Ford has lived in a neighborhood adjacent to ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Oil Refinery for nearly 40 years. In that time he’s lost a great deal to cancer: neighbors, friends, even his own lung.

Percy Hollis of Concerned Citizens of Norco, Louisiana takes a bucket-based air-quality reading. Norco is home to a giant Shell chemical plant, which borders the mostly African-American Diamond neighborhood. © Louisiana bucket brigade

The street Ford calls home looks like any other suburban stretch, except that its backdrop is a blazing refinery outlined by a gray blanket of smoke. “The man who lived here just died of cancer,” Ford says, gesturing at a one-story house as the bus rolls past. “If you look on this side of the street—the lady who lived there died of cancer. The man who lives next to my house had cancer, and the man next door to him has cancer. Over there you can see the elementary school.”

The refinery is lit up all night. Plumes of flame known as flares ignite from the smokestacks periodically. While the flares are only supposed to go off in emergencies, residents say they’re more like business as usual, sparking up an average of once every six days. According to the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, company accident reports show that chemicals considered “extremely hazardous substances” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are routinely discharged, with about one million pounds of pollutants emitted in excess of permitted limits per year. Rotten-egg odors and black coke dust migrate from the refinery to settle around the homes in a dark miasma.

“We need industry,” Ford explains. “We need the jobs, and we’re not looking to blame anybody. But we also have a right to clean air. I’ve spoken to government officials, politicians, written to Congress. Everybody agrees that we have a problem, but nobody does anything about it.”

When he first complained to company officials about the foul-smelling chemicals permeating the interior of his house, his claims were dismissed. “Eventually, I realized I’d have to get something to back me up,” he says. “So I bought a weather monitoring station and started to log the time I smelled the odors, and I built up a case over time.”

Ford’s data collection got easier when the Louisiana Bucket Brigade introduced an EPA-approved, low-cost device that allows anyone to take independent air samples. The tool is simply a five-gallon bucket with a sturdy plastic bag inside and a hand-pumped vacuum on the lid. It’s easy to use: Suspect air is drawn into the bag, sealed in, and sent to a lab for testing. Louisiana Bucket Brigade director Anne Rolfes says that the bucket-gathered data tells a story that contrasts sharply with that of the oil companies.

“When the company gets up and says “no problem,” what it’s really saying is “nobody is going to die today,”” Rolfes says. “We’re concerned with the long-term effects that these pollutants are having on communities.” While the Chalmette refinery uses its own fixed monitors, activists say the devices test for too few chemicals, too far from the homes nearby. The company also monitors in parts per million, while more protective provisions set for ambient air standards in Louisiana are in parts per billion.

ExxonMobil’s use of hydrochloric acid in on-site processing demonstrates policy that completely opposes the precautionary principle (see “The European Dream,” features, this issue). Should a worst-case accident scenario occur, New Orleans could be heavily impacted. A safer alternative for hydrochloric acid not only exists but was patented by ExxonMobil, yet it has not been implemented in Chalmette.

In early 2004, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Ford’s nonprofit, the St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality, filed a lawsuit under the Clean Air Act against ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refining. Based upon information from accident records out of the refinery’s own files, the suit cites such problems as the continual leakage of benzene—a known carcinogen and respiratory irritant—from storage tanks on site. Adam Babich, the attorney representing the Bucket Brigade in the lawsuit, argues that many of the incidents reported in the accident records were preventable: “We’re suing about a slew of violations of permit, and the point we’re making is that a well-run facility should not have this number of incidents.”

“Cases like this are the reason Congress put citizen supervision in the Clean Air Act,” says student attorney Clay Garside. “When neither the EPA nor state agencies are enforcing the act in courts, the citizens have a right to sue. Sometimes, they’re the best watchdogs.” A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the same refinery.

St. Bernard Parish (which includes Chalmette) has the highest cancer rate in the state, but cancer incidence and routine accidental releases are not confined to that area. About a quarter of the nation’s petrochemicals are produced in Louisiana, and the state ranks second in the nation for benzene pollution and cancer mortality. Louisiana is not alone: activists on the Chalmette tour represented communities in Texas, New York, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Bucket Brigade founder Denny Larson has spent nearly a decade bringing the air-monitoring buckets to communities across the globe. In 1995, attorney Edward Masry and his research assistant, the now-famous Erin Brockovich, became ill from fumes emitted from a Unocal-owned petroleum refinery in the Bay Area of California. Masry, who was representing the surrounding community in a lawsuit against the refinery, hired an environmental engineer to design the “bucket” to enable his clients to monitor toxic exposure for themselves. Soon, bucket brigade chapters sprung up throughout Texas, Florida, Alabama, Ohio, and of course New Orleans.

“The problem I saw consistently was a lack of information in the face of a credible eye-witness testimony,” Larson says. “It’s through generating misleading data that companies can get away with what they’re doing. Once you have proof, you can collapse the pyramid of deception, turn the tables, and bring on some dramatic changes.” The Bucket Brigades also use high-tech CEREX monitors that can instantly register what compounds are present in the air, and maintain log books of accident reports. When Bucket Brigades have taken polluters to court, the companies have been forced to relocate communities or invest in more effective monitoring equipment, and they usually settle before going to trial.

Thanks to the efforts of a Bucket Brigade spin-off, Global Community Monitor, communities are now being trained and equipped with buckets in all corners of the world. Larson notes that the most heavily impacted communities consist of people of color in the lowest-income bracket. “It is a corporate strategy to move pollution away from the eyes of the Western world in order to avoid media oversight and regulatory structure,” Larson says. “That is exactly why we made the Bucket Brigade into a global movement.”