Mapping Up the Spill

Mapping Up the Spill

A short article on the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and its Oil Spill Crisis Map.


6 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Experiential Learning, Geography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Human Geography, Physical Geography

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Thousands of dead fish found in a shipping channel between the city of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

A woman who has worked for a decade at a shrimp processing plant in Dulac, Louisiana, getting laid off due to fishery closures.

The marsh grass surrounding Barataria Bay, Louisiana, covered in a coat of oil.

All of the preceding incidents—and 2,000 more—have been documented on the Oil Spill Crisis Map, an interactive project organized by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health and justice organization. All the incidents have happened in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Oil Spill Crisis Map was developed by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and a class of graduate students at Tulane University in New Orleans. The online map allows community members to contribute to the map by text message, email, Twitter, or by filling out a form online. The staff of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade attempts to verify all the reports that have been posted.

The founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Anne Rolfes, explains the motivation behind creating the feature. “The map is a way for an ordinary person to document what is happening to them,” she says. “Without a map, there really isn’t a way for a regular person to get their story in context with a lot of other stories.”

Bucket Brigade

Before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade was primarily known for outfitting communities adjacent to oil refineries and chemical plants with inexpensive air monitoring equipment known as “buckets.”

“The bucket is an easy-to-use air sampling device,” Rolfes says. “It takes an air sample, and it documents whatever toxic chemicals are in the air at that moment. This documentation gives people the kind of evidence that they need to go then and advocate for improvements.”

For example, in 1999, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade worked with an African-American neighborhood called Diamond, which was located adjacent to a Shell refinery and a chemical plant in Norco, Louisiana. Using the air-monitoring buckets, the community found high amounts of the chemicals benzene and methyl ethyl ketone.

“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,” Rolfes says. “So they took a lot of air samples to achieve that.”

Oil Spill Crisis Map

Currently, the Oil Spill Crisis Map is covered with colored dots that look like thumbtacks stuck into the page of an atlas.

“It’s a map with dots on it, and every dot represents something that has happened because of the oil spill—whether it’s losing a job or seeing oil onshore or a dead or injured animal,” Rolfes says.

Rolfes says that the stories of livelihoods destroyed by the oil spill have affected her more than any of the other posts on the map. Rolfes recalls one post from an oyster shucker, a skilled worker who opens oyster shells. “There’s an early report from an oyster shucker that says he had all of his equipment—he had the knives, he had the gloves, he used to go set up at parties,” she says. “This was his way of making an income, and now he said, ‘I’m going to have to hang up my gloves.’”

The map provides the government and BP, the company responsible for the oil spill, with valuable information for their cleanup efforts. However, it appears that the residents of the Gulf Coast are benefiting the most from the Oil Spill Crisis Map.

“The people who have said that it has been the most helpful are the regular community people who said we found out about oil in our area from the map a full two to three days before we ever saw it ourselves,” Rolfes says.

Rolfes says that the organization will broaden the use of the Oil Spill Crisis Map so that it will become a new tool for the same kinds of communities that use the buckets.

“We are going to use this map now to document the chemical accidents next to refineries and chemical plants so that it won’t just be the constituency that’s on the coast impacted by the spill, but now also using this map is going to be the people who are the neighbors of these big plants,” Rolfes says.

Rolfes hopes that anyone who visits the Oil Spill Crisis Map will get a sense of the disaster’s scope. “The other piece is that we hope that this can be a tool to show people that it is not going to be over really for years to come,” she says. “Even though the well has been capped for the time being, the effects are going to keep washing onshore, and we are going to continue to document that and encourage other people to do so. We hope that the world out there remains interested.”

Fast Fact

Diamond in the Rough
Diamond, Louisiana, was the site of the 1811 Slave Revolt, the largest slave revolt in United States history.

Media Credits

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

December 21, 2023

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