British Columbia

'Bucket Brigade' tests air in Prince George

People in Prince George, B.C., plan to use buckets to do battle with the possibly harmful gases that create a bad smell in the city's air.
The substances pumped into the air by plants in the Prince George area will be collected by a citizens group for analysis to see if they are harmful. ((

People in Prince George, B.C., plan to use buckets to do battle with the possibly harmful gases that create a bad smell in the city's air.

A citizens' group called the People's Action Committee for Healthy Air [PACHA] has sought the help of an international environmental organization that helps gather air samples in five-gallon buckets and then has the samples chemically analyzed.

"People [have] been trying to clean up the air for 40 or 50 years. We haven't had a lot of results. It still stinks," PACHA president Dave Fuller told CBC News.

PACHA volunteers will be trained by Global Community Monitor to use the buckets to capture air samples on days when air quality appears — or smells — the worst. The samples will be tested in a California lab.

"I'm afraid ... to think what we're going to find," Fuller said. "We know it could be toxic. We know people are not feeling good when this stuff is in the air. We want to find out why."

"When it's smelly, people feel sick, they feel nauseated," Fuller said.

The "bucket brigade" — as Global Community Monitor calls the local groups it trains — hopes those test results will force industries and the government to clean up Prince George's air.

"We hear constantly of people leaving Prince George because 'it stinks,'" Fuller said.

"We want to do odor testing to find out who is responsible for these odors and what is really in them."

South African volunteers examine an air collection bucket similar to the ones that will be used in Prince George, B.C. ((Global Community Monitor))

PACHA members will be trained by Sept. 19 to build their own buckets for sample gathering, which is expected to take place over a period of about six months, Fuller said.

Global Community Monitor is an international non-profit organization that has worked with communities in 20 countries, including Canada, according to its website.

An Erin Brockovich connection

The bucket brigades were started in 1995 by attorney Edward Masry, the lawyer who hired assistant Erin Brockovich, later the subject of a hit Hollywood movie.

Masry and Brokovich had clients who were being exposed to toxic fumes from a petroleum plant, so he hired an environmental engineer to design a low-cost device — the "bucket" — which the community could use to monitor their exposure for themselves.

Suspect air is drawn into a plastic bag inside the bucket. The bag is then sealed and sent to a laboratory for analysis which, at about $500 per sample, is the most expensive part of the operation.

The contents of the bag are passed through a device called a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, which can identify about 100 different toxic gases.

"Everyone is concerned about small particulates and know about the serious diseases they cause in lungs, hearts and brains," said pediatrician Dr. Marie Hay, who is with another Prince George community organization, the Millar Addition Citizens' Coalition.

"Families of the Miller Addition [neighbourhood] are suffering. They cannot wait for years to resolve the untenable situation of foul air," Hay said.