From: Robina Suwol
Date: 25 Jan 2002
Remote Name: 188.8.131.52
FOLLOWING in the footsteps of Erin Brockovich, South Africa's first "bucket brigade" volunteers took to the streets south of Durban this week, hoping to reclaim their right to breathe unpolluted air.
Armed with a nappy bucket, bicycle pump, valves and an expensive plastic bag, the volunteers will act much like sniffer-dogs and collect scientific evidence on air pollution from neighbouring industries. Similar brigades will be formed in Cape Town, Sasolburg and Secunda later this year.
Under the tutelage of local environmental watchdog groups and American community activist Denny Larson, the South Durban residents learned how to collect samples of air pollution in a monitoring device pioneered by Erin Brockovich, the American environmental heroine whose campaigns against industrial pollution were dramatised on film recently by actress Julia Roberts.
Seven years ago, while investigating air pollution complaints against a San Fransisco petrol refinery, Ms Brockovich and attorney Ed Masry became frustrated by the lack of official records on air pollution, and decided to collect their own evidence. However, the cost of conventional air monitoring equipment was too high and they hired a consultant to make a cheap and simple sampling device.
The prototype design - which traps polluted air in a laboratory bag housed in a bucket - was adapted subsequently by members of the original California bucket brigade. Mr Ardiel Soeker and Mr Bobby Peek of the local environmental watchdog group "groundWork" managed to shave hundreds of rands off the price of the South African air bucket sampler by using cheaper, local components. Mr Soeker reckons it is now possible to assemble the buckets for just over R400, a fraction of the cost of more sophisticated monitoring machines. But Mr Denny Larson, of the California-based group "Global Community Monitor" says the fact that the bucket is cheap and simple doesn't mean that it is primitive or unreliable. "The air buckets have been approved by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)," he said.
"When we collected high samples of benzene and other poisonous chemicals in Durban and other centres during a pilot project two years ago, some industries questioned the validity of the bucket readings and claimed we had captured "worst case" pollution readings.
"But the fact remains that the bucket is reliable, and the samples we take might only reflect the tip of the iceberg." Mr Desmond D'Sa, head of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), is hoping that the bucket campaign will increase pressure on government and polluting industries to upgrade the city's rudimentary air monitoring network.
"At the moment, there is a limited amount of information available about the levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone - but virtually nothing about cancer-causing agents such as benzene."
"Government and industry have failed in their duty to monitor or clean up toxic industrial pollution in the residential areas of South Durban and we are trying to restore the right of the public to know what they are breathing." Mr Larson believes that petrol refineries take financial short-cuts in South Africa and other developing countries because of weak laws and poor enforcement.
"These corporations know how to run clean and safe refineries in Europe and the United States, yet apparently they can't do the same in South Africa." Nevertheless, he says the bucket samples could also help industry to pinpoint the sources of accidental chemical releases into residential areas.
But while the cost of collecting samples has been dramatically reduced by the bucket method, the subsequent analysis in American chemical laboratories remains expensive. GroundWork and the South Durban community alliance are negotiating with a local laboratory to reduce these costs and also hope that donors will contribute towards the cost of laboratory analysis.
* For more information, phone Ardiel Soeker on (082) 9408669
or Michelle Simon and Dulcie Krige at (031) 4611991.
Global Community Monitor,
Coord. Refinery Reform Campaign
A National Campaign to Clean Up U.S. Oil Refineries