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It Doesn’t Take a Fireman to Spot a Fire: Fighting Pollution with Citizen Science

2014 January 16

Shameika Jackson. Velma White and Ronesha Johnson are active reporters
to the map from Shreveport, LA.

By Molly Brackin

We have a saying at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB); “it doesn’t take a fireman to spot a fire.” Likewise, you don’t need to be a scientist to know something is wrong when you spot a black smoking flare that lasts an hour or you smell foul chemicals in the air. Since 2000, the Bucket Brigade has worked with communities and thousands of residents throughout Louisiana that neighbor oil refineries and chemical plants. Our mission is to support our communities’ use of grassroots action to create informed, sustainable neighborhoods free from industrial pollution.  To accomplish this, the Bucket Brigade model is to equip communities most impacted by pollution with easy-to-use tools that monitor their environment, inform residents, and can be used to improve industry accountability.

Untitled-1In early 2010 LABB introduced the iWitness Pollution Map to help Louisiana residents track pollution and associated health effects in their communities. Today there are over 11,000 reports of possible petrochemical pollution on the map.  The iWitness Pollution Map is an open-source online map that allows anyone with a phone to document and share their experience with pollution via voicemail, text, email or by using the online form.  Visitors of the map are able to see reports in real-time, identify possible pollution hotspots by viewing the geographic location of the reports, and sign up to get alerts.The map helps to validate a community’s experience with petrochemical pollution, but more importantly the map monitors incidents of the industry’s potential pollution impacts on the local community.

In a system that allows industry to self-report their emissions and accidents, citizens are extremely important watchdogs. There were over 1,200 citizen reports of pollution from the 17 oil refineries and two associated chemical plants in Louisiana in 2013 alone. Using the iWitness Pollution Map, citizens have reported smells, flaring events, roaring sounds coming from the facilities, and health effects among other things:

 “It’s extremely stinky outside right now, very chemically smelling.  I don’t know exactly what type of smell it is, but is very chemical and it seems to be coming from the plant off Scenic Highway.  I guess it is around 6pm in the evening.  It’s raining and no feel of anything but just definitely very smelly, very unnatural.  It’s thick outside.”- January 13th, 2013, Baton Rouge, LA

 “…That plant over there, that flare is going just like a train.   It been doing it all night long.  And I can hear it all on my porch on Broadway now.”-July 28th, 2013, Shreveport, LA 

“When I had gotten off of work at 2:30am there was a weird smell in the air. At 10am the smell woke me up it was all outside & inside my home, which brought on a migraine & nausea! I don’t know what the chemical is or if it’s even safe for us to be in our home right now. We live on the Westbank in Algiers. If someone could give us some information on this that would be fantastic. The news & fire departments are saying it’s a mystery & others say it’s coming from the Chalmette refinery.”- April 3, 2013, Algiers (New Orleans), LA

A mural painted by community members in Baton Rouge reads: “Standard Heights: Clean Air is Our Right!”

A mural painted by residents in Baton Rouge reads: “Standard Heights: Clean Air is Our Right!”

From consistent citizen reporting to the iWitness Pollution Map, the results of the data we have gathered provides crucial statements of real life everyday experiences from residents, which counter the claims of some local industries that their chemical releases have resulted in “no offsite impact.”  LABB triangulates the reports to the map with other available information (i.e. air monitoring data, facility self reports) and shares the analysis with impacted communities, federal and state enforcement officials, first responders and the media.

Some communities in Louisiana are overburdened by industrial pollution on a daily basis, but if no one reports it, it’s as if nothing ever happened.  Thanks to these innovative tools, communities impacted by pollution have a visible, public platform to get their experiences documented and their voices heard!

Molly Brackin is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, where she serves as the Monitoring & Evaluation Associate. She holds a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans, where she specialized in hazard mitigation and disaster planning.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. January 16, 2014

    Awesome implementation of this tool, LABB!

  2. Chuck Floyd permalink
    January 16, 2014

    Your neighborhood proactivity is “superb!”

  3. Bouchakour permalink
    January 16, 2014

    Hi everyone,
    IWitness Pollution Map is a great system that allows to reveal wholes areas of pollution and to treat them in time.
    But what I loved most is how to benefit from our IT supremacy and insert it into the environmental protection
    Very proud of you

  4. Dan permalink
    January 16, 2014

    Ever wonder what’s emitted in refinery flares? The answer may be in @danbeavers use of a @PublicLab #spectrometer

  5. Maggie permalink
    January 17, 2014

    What a fantastic tool and empowering communities with information can definitely illicit change from those who would try to pretend that these impacts are not happening.

  6. IrishHogan permalink
    January 17, 2014

    How is the uploaded information utilized by enforcement officials? Seems futile if the citizen observations are not relayed real-time to appropriate facilities for further investigation!

  7. Akosua permalink
    January 19, 2014

    I learn something new each time I read one the interesting stories on this blog. Information is power and the members of LABB and others are showing that everyday people can make a positive change in their communities.

  8. Mirabel Weriwoh permalink
    January 22, 2014

    Great tool! Awesome idea!

  9. Molly Brackin permalink
    January 22, 2014

    Hi IrishHogan! You make a great point: the information collected from the map is useless if refineries and enforcement officials don’t ever see it. At the end of every week my colleague and I send “enforcement opportunities” to the EPA. We identify enforcement opportunities as an agglomeration of reports from a certain geographic area on a given 24 hour period, or a citizen report that corroborates with a report from industry to the National Response Center. We have a whole methodology for identifying enforcement opportunities. In the past few years we have had several victories (settlements, installation of air monitors, etc) that have come out our correspondence with the refineries and enforcement agencies regarding community impacts.

  10. Omega Wilson permalink
    January 22, 2014

    Molly Bracken, my wife Brenda and I were pleased to meet Ronesha Johnson at our North Carolina Environmental Justice Network Summit in Oct 2013. Ronesha did great panel presentation on your work. Your blog is a great model for ground-level research by impacted communities. Thanks for being so innovative, Omega & Brenda Wilson, West End Revitalization Association, Mebane, NC

  11. Robert permalink
    January 25, 2014

    I just had a chance to check out the “I Witness Pollution Map” and I must say, I see many uses for the information that is being collected and shared. Keep up the good work and keep pushing for more “Citizen Science”.


  12. Jane permalink
    January 28, 2014

    It’s good to hear from every day citizens about the experiences they are having on a day to day basis. I recently read an article on how Ej communities are using smart phones in a number of different ways and this blog has definitely expanded my knowledge on how citizens can capture data and use it to educate about their experiences.

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