Skip to Content

Anya Groner: Healing the Gulf with Buckets and Balloons

How fenceline communities are gathering clues to help them combat environmental pollution.
Image by Flickr user Daniel Lombraña González

By Anya Groner

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven people and injuring sixteen others. Two days later, the worst accidental marine oil spill in human history was detected. The threat to local ecosystems was gargantuan. Over 15,000 species—ranging from orcas and great white sharks to vampire squid and the endangered American crocodile—make their homes in gulf habitats. The livelihood of hundreds of thousands of fishermen, oil workers, hotel staff, and tour guides depended on a vibrant coast. The spill became a slow-motion death sentence. For 87 days, crude oil erupted from the bottom of the sea, and attempts to close it, divert it, and cap it failed.

Like many Louisiana residents, Shannon Dosemagen—an anthropologist by training and community organizer by profession—worried. She wanted to learn just how bad the spill was, how quickly it was spreading, and what directions it was headed. She scanned newspapers, watched TV reports, and listened to the radio. The estimated spill rate varied depending on the source. Some outlets reported that one thousand barrels of oil leaked each day from the mouth of the drill site. Others estimated the rate to be as much as sixty-two times higher. Additional facts were hard to come by. Nobody provided the detailed coverage she sought. Dosemagen remembers her frustration at the “dearth of information.”

She wasn’t the only one disturbed by poor reporting. “There [were] seven of us,” she recalls: an MIT student, a geographer, a biologist, an artist, a designer, a health scientist, and Dosemagen herself, an anthropologist. The group, a kind of environmental Magnificent Seven, put out a call and met up in a New Orleans park. “We’re going to fly balloons and kites,” Dosemagen announced to the ad hoc committee. “We’re going to launch them over the Gulf of Mexico.”

Balloons and kites might seem unlikely choices for monitoring an environmental disaster caused by the world’s sixth largest oil and gas company, British Petroleum, but whimsy has its advantages. “A big red balloon or a huge Delta kite . . . takes you back to your childhood,” Dosemagen explains. “It wasn’t something that [BP] saw as a threat.” Old point and shoot cameras, scavenged from junk drawers, were hacked to take photos at five second intervals, stabilized inside empty soda bottles, and, depending on the wind, fastened to either a balloon or a kite.

Over the next few months, college students, fishermen, tour guides, and construction crews from all five Gulf States volunteered to help. “They wanted to go out and see how the spill was unfurling,” Dosemagen remembers.

The group collected more than ten thousand aerial photographs. In these images, yellow and brown slicks glisten atop the rippling surf. Tar balls clogged wetlands and washed onto beaches. Sticky plumes drifted through deep waters. Stitched together with a program called MapKnitter, these individual pictures formed high resolution, up-to-date maps, far more detailed than the satellite imagery previously available. News outlets including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, ABC and CNN used the images in their stories. Lawyers requested copies for litigation. Google Earth posted the group’s maps on their websites. Now, instead of a blackout, when Dosemagen turned on the news she found up-to-date information that she and her teams collected themselves.

Community science empowers ordinary people ask their own scientific questions and follow through with data collection and analysis.

Flying balloons and kites to monitor the spread of an oil spill is a variation of a practice known as citizen science. Hailed for involving participants without formal training, citizen science is traditionally organized by an investigator who poses a question, asks volunteers to help collect data, and then analyzes that data for their research. Dosemagen’s balloon-mapping project shifts the paradigm. “We wanted to push back against normal citizen science models,” Dosemagen recalls. She refers to this new, more-integrated practice as “community science.” Instead of answering a researcher’s questions, community science empowers ordinary people ask their own scientific questions and follow through with data collection and analysis. The process is as much about science as it is about education, community building, and curiosity.

*                      *                     *

Dosemagen began her environmental work shortly before the oil spill began, with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans based non-profit that also uses community scientists to detect and report pollution. With a simple sample bucket, residents of “fenceline communities,” neighborhoods that border a dump, refinery, or chemical plant, can monitor air quality. Founded in 2000, the Bucket Brigade’s goal is to detect spills and use hard data to hold companies accountable for pollution and clean up.

More than fifty-five oil and gas companies operate rigs, pipelines, and derricks in Louisiana. The banks of the Mississippi River, once home to plantations and fields, now host refineries. Robert D. Bullard, author of Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, notes that the combination of weak unions, cheap land and labor, low business taxes, and lenient environmental regulations made the South an ideal destination for new and expanding industries in the late 70s and early 80s. Electronics companies, aerospace contractors, federal defense, waste management, and fossil fuels companies recognized opportunity and moved in. Though locals largely preferred the development of clean commerce to dirty manufacturing, many communities lacked the political or monetary resources to effect this kind of change.

“The argument of jobs for local residents was used to quell dissent,” Bullard writes. “Environmental risks were offered as unavoidable trade-offs for jobs and a broadened tax base in economically depressed communities.” Though many industries operating in the South prospered—Exxon earned over $40 billion last year—the wealth these corporations promised when they opened has yet to materialize in the majority of the communities where they operate. In fact, income inequality across the South is growing.

Environmental degradation is a kind of domination, and though domination can produce resistance, it can also foster resignation and acquiescence.

“There’s no doubt that pollution contributes to poverty,” notes Anne Rolfes, the founder and executive director of the Bucket Brigade. Exxon Mobil, for instance, has set up in Baton Rouge across the street from a neighborhood where the child poverty rate is over 40 percent. Contact with contaminants can cause illness, missed workdays, hospital bills, disability, and cancer. Prenatal exposure to pollutants is associated with childhood behavioral problems and cognitive delays. When I visit the Bucket Brigade office—a plywood cubical in a repurposed warehouse—Rolfes tells me about a 2012 benzene leak at an ExxonMobil Chemical Plant in north Baton Rouge. “Infants were vomiting white from the odor in the air,” she says. “It was terrible. Pollution is contributing to the stratification.”

Environmental degradation is a kind of domination, and though domination can produce resistance, it can also foster resignation and acquiescence. “Collective inaction is in part a function of the creeping, slow-motion nature of [environmental] contamination,” writes Syracuse University geographer, Thomas Perrault. “In contrast to an oil spill, for example, the pollution that emanates from the refinery is gradual.”

Petrochemical operations tend to cluster in poor and predominantly Black neighborhoods. Residents learn about the Bucket Brigade from individuals already engaged in monitoring activities. Typically, the Bucket Brigade gets involved when community groups ask for their assistance. Education, Rolfes says, is crucial because it “empowers individuals to take a stand.” Learning the names of pollutants, symptoms of exposure, data collection methods, and advocacy skills can be transformative. “It is so time consuming to win and the wins can sometimes be temporary,” Rolfes says, “but the advantages [of community science] to an individual . . . last forever. It’s not me swooping in and doing the work. It’s them. They aren’t intimidated anymore.”

A recent Bucket Brigade project began on June 7, 2015, when residents of St. Rose, Louisiana complained of a stench in the air and reported symptoms of nausea, headaches, respiratory difficulty, vomiting, diarrhea, and rash. With the help of the Bucket Brigade, volunteers collected data, which they presented to Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. When she conducted additional testing, EPA air monitors confirmed the presence of the neurotoxin hydrogen sulfide. A nearby facility, which housed a Shell processing plant, was identified as the source and ordered to conduct rigorous monitoring and maintenance of fence-line air quality.

Rolfes tells me this narrative is fairly typical for the Bucket Brigade. “Every time we start working with a neighborhood, the plant’s operations improve. Every time. They’re operating so poorly to begin with that there’s nowhere to go but up…. What we’re doing is long-term projects that have a life or death implications.”

*                      *                     *

The Bucket Brigade isn’t the only New Orleans environmental operation modeled around community science. After the Deepwater Horizon mapping project ended, the project organizers including Dosemagen founded the non-profit Public Lab. Like the Bucket Brigade, Public Lab trains citizens to use simple tools—infrared cameras, DIY spectrometers, balloon and kite photography—to assemble and distribute data about their environment.

While the Bucket Brigade works solely in Louisiana, Public Lab exports their methodology around the world. Currently more than six thousand participants interact with Public Lab to collect and process data. Though the organization continues to facilitate projects in Louisiana, their members monitor invasive plant removal in Amherst, Massachusetts, wetlands in Alberta, Canada, and hydro-fracture sand mining in Chipewa County, Wisconsin.

This February, a group of volunteers in Guilin, China, used cameras on balloons and bamboo sticks to take aerial photographs of pharmaceutical companies. Two years earlier, the entire population of fish in Guilin farmer Yang Chaojin’s twenty ponds died. Concurrently, residents in the area noted air pollution and black water seeping from sewers. Though the pharmaceutical factory took responsibility for the lost livestock and compensated Chaojin, he never received an explanation of what caused the die-off. So far, Public Lab photos reveal potential sources of pollutants, sewage pools and dumpsters, in the fenced area outside the plant. Once the team gathers more data, they’ll analyze it and determine how best to take action.

Public Lab believes that by promoting a hands-on, do-it-yourself ethos, communities will participate in finding healthy solutions to local environmental justice issues. By shifting the distribution of knowledge, they hope to rebalance political and economic power, too. “What we’re doing,” Dosemagen explains, when I inquire about the international scope of the organization, “is to democratize science.”

*                      *                     *

Louisiana is known more for jambalaya and jazz than it is for environmental stewardship, but it’s no accident that both the Bucket Brigade and Public Lab were founded here. The Greater New Orleans, Inc reports that over 300 chemical plants operate in the state and that 88 percent of the nation’s offshore oil rigs operate off Louisiana’s coast. 13 percent of the annual state budget comes from taxes paid by the oil and gas industry and nearly every cultural event, including Mardi Gras parades, Jazz Fest, and football games, count Shell, BP, and Chevron among their sponsors. “Polluting smokestacks, to some individuals, [are] visible signs that plants [are] operating and employing people,” Bullard observes.

In March 2016, a report from Loyola University’s Jesuit Research Institute found that Louisiana ranked last in the nation on an index measuring social justice—a measurement that takes into account factors such as poverty, racial inequality, and immigrant exclusion. Like Rolfes, Dosemagen cites economic inequality as a reason for environmental damages. Louisiana, she tells me, is “a place that gets dumped on by corporations.” Poverty functions as a source of cheap labor. In other words, when looking to source low-skill workers, impoverished communities can be an asset. This past year, as Louisiana’s budget tanked, causing hospital closures, school budget cuts, and reductions to the state’s university scholarship program TOPS, oil companies operated outside the fiscal crisis. Despite a 1.5 billion dollar budget shortfall last year, the Louisiana state government continued to subsidize the petrochemical industry, paying out more in rebates, tax credits, and tax breaks than it collected from corporate taxes.

As climate change causes the planet to warm and weather patterns to shift, we’re all increasingly members of one giant “fenceline community,” subject to the hazards of increased greenhouse gases.

As both the Bucket Brigade and Public Lab train more volunteers, their efficiency and effectiveness grows. On Thursday, May 12, 2016, 88,000 gallons of crude oil discharged from a Shell wellhead into the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Island. Within days, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Public Lab, and several other organizations that make up the Gulf Monitoring Consortium were observing the spill’s spread. While these groups lack the financial resources of the oil and gas companies, community scientists were already exerting pressure, asking questions, collecting data, and publicizing results. Videos, maps, data, and commentary were shared using open-source technology. In an industry where money speaks loudest, concerned citizens are discovering that data amplifies their collective voice.

As climate change causes the planet to warm and weather patterns to shift, we’re all increasingly members of one giant “fenceline community,” subject to the hazards of increased greenhouse gases. Nonetheless, the impacts of climate change are uneven. In the United States, Louisiana constitutes the frontlines. Due to rising oceans, river engineering, and petrochemical operations, over the past eighty years more than two thousand square miles of southeastern Louisiana has disappeared into the ocean. The nation’s first official climate refugees, members of Biloxi-Chitmach-Choctaw tribe from the vanishing Isle de Jean Charles, received the nation’s inaugural climate change relocation grant. Recipients have until 2022 to move further inland.

In mid-August record-smashing rainfall in Louisiana resulted in historic flooding that killed thirteen people and damaged as many as 189,000 houses in two-dozen parishes. The storm, which dropped as much as two feet of rain in two days, is a classic example of how climate change alters weather systems. A warming ocean causes increased evaporation, faster-forming storms, higher bulkier clouds carrying increased water loads, and historic precipitation. Louisiana’s most recent rainstorm “is at least the eighth five-hundred-year rainfall event across America in little more than a year,” reported meteorologist Eric Holthaus in an article he penned for Pacific Standard. “As the atmosphere warms . . . it [is] exponentially more likely that extreme rainfall events will occur.” The best hope for slowing these deleterious impacts of climate change are to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We cannot burn this stuff anymore,” Rolfes says, when I ask her about the Louisiana Bucket Brigades’ response to climate change. “Done. Fossil fuels. Done.” She tells me that her organization has joined forces with the global Keep It In The Ground movement, which advocates no new extraction of oil or gas of any kind. For a Louisianan non-profit, that means pressuring local petrochemical industries to slow down or shut down. Below the Gulf sits the eighth largest source of carbon in the world. A recent study by Biological Louisiana concluded that, “Consuming the oil and gas in the unleased areas of the Gulf of Mexico will potentially result in greenhouse gas emissions [that are the] equivalent to the pollution of about 9,500 coal-fired power plants operating for a year.” In other words, burning the fuel beneath Gulf would bump greenhouse gas levels to catastrophic levels.

Despite this scientific evidence warning against continued fossil fuel extraction, less than two weeks after floods ravaged the state, BOEM, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, held an auction in New Orleans’ Superdome, the same building where residents sought refuge in the days after Hurricane Katrina. For sale were for thousand offshore drilling leases for tracts in the Louisiana Gulf. An area as large as the state of Virginia was up for grabs.

The day before the auction, residents including members of the Bucket Brigade piled flood debris including couches, siding, and carpet in front of BOEM’s New Orleans offices and held a blue banner that read “More Drilling = More Flooding.” Their goal was to cancel the auction. “”If we want to give [our children] any chance to have a livable climate, we need to keep the vast majority of all known fossil fuel reserves in the ground,” said Renate Heurich, New Orleans resident and a member of the group occupying BOEM’s offices. “When BOEM sells the Gulf, they are selling our children’s future.”

“South Louisiana flooded last week because our atmosphere is warm and holds moisture,” Rolfes told the crowd. “We are getting repeated wake up calls and yet we stay asleep.”

As Public Lab shares scientific methodology with international volunteers and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade inspires Louisianans to effect global change, citizens are awakening to the promises of scientific literacy and environmental reform. Like waves rippling across the Gulf of Mexico, community scientists influence neighbors and alter local priorities. Their actions are making impacts. Though the auction for offshore leases took place as scheduled, buyers were wary. 4000 tracts were up for sale, but BOEM received only twenty-four bids, the lowest participation rate ever for an auction of Western Gulf drilling leases.

Here in the South, the stakes for environmental stewardship are high. Habitats, livelihoods, physical wellbeing, and community growth are integrally linked to the health of the land, air, swamps, rivers, and ocean, and, in recent years, hurricanes, floods, oil spills, and sinkholes have assailed Louisiana. The future requires changes. Increasingly, locals are vocal, educated, and insistent. With community scientists at the helm, the Gulf may be changing.

Anya Groner’s essays, stories, and poems can be found in journals including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Ecotone, Meridian, VIDA, and The Oxford American. She teaches writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Writing. Read more at

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

You might also like

Comments are temporarily closed