PBS Premiere: July 23, 2002Check the broadcast schedule »

The Bucket Brigade

Staff members from Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) appear in Fenceline, training Diamond community members to monitor air quality in Norco as members of a "Bucket Brigade," a community group that uses the simple and reliable sampling "bucket" technology. Norco residents and members of Bucket Brigades across the country and around the world measure pollution levels in their own backyards everyday. Find out more about CBE, how Bucket Brigades work, and how you can set one up in your own community below.

What is Communities for a Better Environment?

Fenceline: Bucket Brigade Founded in 1978, Communities for a Better Environment is a membership organization that works to promote environmental health and justice for all people through organizing, leadership development, legal and research advocacy in disproportionately polluted communities. CBE staff includes lawyers, scientists, and community organizers who work to reduce pollution from power plants, refineries, and the clean-up of toxic sites.

Fenceline: Bucket Brigade 2 From its beginnings, CBE was interested in developing community monitoring strategies. The Bucket Brigade Project is only part of CBE's work to directly equip residents impacted by industrial pollution with the tools to inform, monitor, and transform their immediate environment.

What's the history of the Bucket Brigade?

The bucket air-sampling technology was developed when personal injury lawyer Ed Masry (of Erin Brockovich fame) engaged an engineer to develop a simple, affordable and accurate monitoring technique that community members could use, based on a standard sampling device.

With the advent of the bucket, the next step was to establish an organizational structure (a Bucket Brigade) to harness the potential of the technology to a sustainable strategy. The first Bucket Brigade was set up by community groups in Contra Costa County in California. With the initial success of the Contra Costa group, the future of the Bucket Brigade project developed into a partnership between CBE, community and environmental groups, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Developing training and quality assurance/quality control plans for good procedures (approved by the EPA) were the next steps.

How are Bucket Brigades organized?

Fenceline: Bucket Brigade 3 There are three main roles for members of a Bucket Brigade. Sniffers sound the alert when an air sample needs to be taken (when they smell something, see smoke, or hear of a release). Sniffers make the phone calls to appropriate government agencies to notify them of the problem. Samplers are responsible for taking the actual air sample using the bucket. They take detailed notes and make the phone calls to arrange to get the sample analyzed. The Coordinator is the only individual to change the bags in the bucket and send the samples to the lab. This continuity ensures the credibility of the sample and centralizes the Bucket Brigade.

How does the technology work?

Fenceline: Bucket Brigade 4 The bucket takes an air sample using a "grab" sampling technique. The bucket traps a few liters of air in a Teflon-type bag that is then sent in to a laboratory for analysis. Grab sampling is a well-established technique in the environmental monitoring industry. The EPA has established standard techniques for taking and analyzing air samples. Industries and government agencies use this technique for many of their own air quality measurements. The buckets employ the same principles.

What's next for CBE and community monitoring efforts?

Fenceline: Bucket Brigade diagram The buckets are only one part of CBE's effort to implement better community-based monitoring and research techniques. The buckets, important as they are, are only able to monitor gases. They cannot measure for particulate matter or toxins, such as dioxins, that normally attach themselves to particles. CBE is working on strategies for making blood tests for dioxins more available to communities. Buckets also provide only a snapshot in time of conditions in a certain area. The next step for communities interested in monitoring how toxin levels are changing over time is to look into technologies like real-time optical sensors, which are able to provide continuous, more permanent monitoring.

Credits: The Bucket Brigade Manual, Communities for a Better Environment; Julia May, Senior Scientist. Images reproduced from The Bucket Brigade Manual with the permission of Communities for a Better Environment.

For further information or to receive a copy of The Bucket Brigade Manual please contact: Communities for a Better Environment at info@cbecal.org