Illustration by Mary Crooks
National Geographic Education
Anne Rolfes organized the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to “support communities who were negatively impacted by the oil industry.”
Developed in California, the “bucket” is a device that the neighbors of oil refineries and chemical plants can use to measure the amount of toxic gases in their air. Anne created the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in 2000 to teach community members of the Gulf Coast how to use the buckets.
Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade generated an Oil Spill Crisis Map, which allows individuals to post the effects of the environmental disaster on a map of the Gulf Coast.
Anne was inspired to found the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in 2000 after serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa. “While I was there, I started to learn about oil pollution all the pollution that comes from oil in Nigeria, in the Niger Delta,” she says. “From there, I started to work on issues in the Niger Delta, and then came back to my home, which is Louisiana, because I realized there were also pollution issues here.”
One of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s biggest accomplishments so far has been helping the residents of a neighborhood in Norco, Louisiana. The community, Diamond, was sandwiched between an oil refinery and a chemical plant. The owners of the refinery helped Diamond residents relocate after it was found they were being exposed to toxic gases.
“We helped the group in Norco—they are called the Concerned Citizens of Norco—finally after years convince Shell to buy out their contaminated property, so they could move to a healthier environment,” Anne says. “So they took a lot of air samples to achieve that.”
MOST REWARDING PART OF THE PROGRAM
“The most rewarding part is absolutely working with the communities, who are essentially our constituents, or those people who are working to improve the environment and health of the state,” Anne says. “There’s no contest.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF THE PROGRAM
Anne says that the environmental impact of the oil industry can be overwhelming. “To address every problem is fairly exhausting and honestly impossible,” she says.
Anne says that the locations of Gulf Coast oil refineries are clearly based on geographic features of the landscape. Most of them are located on large tracts of land with access to the water.
Anne can easily recall one instance of using a basic geographic tool and realizing its power. “The reason that I got really excited about the bucket for the very first time was because of a map,” she says. “The map showed the refinery, and it showed wind direction, which is the wind coming from the refinery on the people. That means all the chemicals are being carried by the wind on the people, and it also showed bucket results on the map. And those results showed … the chemicals from the facility in the neighborhood.”
Anne says that the Louisiana Bucket Brigade takes all sorts of volunteers, whether they help the organization track health symptoms caused by toxic emissions, or prepare disaster responses. One important way to make a difference is simply by contacting people in affected regions. “It’s always good for the communities to know they have supporters far away.”
To volunteer, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gulf Coast residents track environmental impacts using the Oil Spill Crisis Map.
Gulf Coast residents work with environmental organizations and the government to clean up the spill.
Teach students about the effects of oil spills on the natural environment and human culture.