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For ten years, community members fought to hold Tonawanda Coke accountable for poisoning the air in Tonawanda NY. Using buckets, summa canisters, and tenacious organizing, they collaborated with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) and found that the amount of benzene emitted by Tonawanda Coke was nine times higher than what was being reported to the EPA.
Jackie James Creedon is a founder of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York (CAC) and Citizen Science Community Resources (CSCR) and a contributor to Public Lab, as well as an advisor on the bucket monitor project. She agreed to share her story, which has been lightly edited with permission.
What happened in Tonawanda?
Really, what was intended was to clean up our own backyards. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I didn’t know what caused it. In January of 2002 there was a front page Buffalo News article called “Toxic in Tonawanda?” They interviewed a bunch of people, residents and workers in the area who were all sick. It was people’s stories. Not only were they sick, but there were stories of how their animals had strange diseases and ended up dying. I saw the article and that was really the impetus for me to start researching and finding out what was going on.
I said, “Something doesn’t seem right.” So I reached out to some of those people and just started asking a lot of questions.
Buffalo News article, “Toxic in Tonawanda?” Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources
There was another factory that rolled uranium for the atomic bomb in Tonawanda, and some of those workers worked for this other factory and they were very ill. There was this feeling that that was what was making everybody sick. The residents and the workers had voiced their opinions pretty loud, so the New York State Department of Health came to investigate. They conducted a cancer surveillance study from 1994-1998. They came to Tonawanda to announce their results in 2002. Sure enough, it showed certain cancers and overall cancers were significantly higher than the state averages. They said that none of the cancers that were elevated were associated with uranium exposure, so they just sort of packed up their bags and went home.
I specifically remember that day, that evening, saying, “If it’s not that, then what is it? I want to find out.”
When I started, there was a small local organization called Citizens Environmental Coalition. They had a small Buffalo office with one employee. I reached out and asked them, “Is there a proper citizen’s environmental group in Tonawanda?” And he said “No.” And I said, “OK, I’m going to start one.” The original four of us were Adele, Tim, her husband, and me, and this gentleman who worked for this environmental organization called Mike Schade, who had worked for Lois Gibbs for awhile. So we started a community organization.
In 2003 I was speaking at a rally for Lois Gibbs -- as you know, Love Canal is not far from here either, it was the 25th anniversary and I was asked to speak about the issues in Tonawanda. It was a Toxic Tour, everyone gets on a bus. We were in Tonawanda, I was speaking, that’s when Adele approached me. She said, “You know, I think it’s something in our air that is making us sick.” and I said, “I think maybe you’re right.”
Soon after that I was having coffee with Mike Schade from this environmental organization and he said, “I know of this gentleman in northern CA, his name is Denny Larson, he has this organization called Global Community Monitor. There’s a method to take an air sample called the bucket method.”
What did you originally hope to accomplish?
We wanted to reduce air pollution in our community. None of us were activists, we were concerned citizens, so we had a lot of learning to do. We found out that Tonawanda was home to 54 air regulated facilities. That’s a lot. We also read some brochures about how to get organized and Denny sent us a book about how to run a good neighbor campaign. And that’s what we decided, that we wanted to run a good neighbor campaign based on the results of the bucket.
So from there, Denny had a small grant, he came to Tonawanda, we met in somebody’s basement. Probably 8-10 of us. And we built a couple of buckets. He showed us how to use them. At that point we really only had one bucket. So then we had a bucket, we knew how to use it. And that’s when we learned that we needed to do a brigade.
Denny Larson with the “Bucket”, 2003. Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources
What is a bucket brigade?
A brigade is hunting for a smell. Because these industries pollute mainly in the middle of the night. We had to set an alarm and go out in the middle of the night. So we did that a couple of times. The infamous time that we collected an air sample with our bucket was either the first or the second time. We didn’t do it a lot. The buckets are cheap to make, but it’s expensive for the analysis. You really want to make sure to capture a “bad” smell, because it’s only a three minute sample, and those odors can move really quickly. Apparently we did a good job in capturing it!
At this point we had no idea that most of our polluted air was coming from Tonawanda Coke. We just knew our air stunk. It was August 2004 that we held a bucket brigade at night, we captured an air sample to have it analyzed. We got the results back and still didn’t know what all the numbers meant. We met in Tim’s living room and planned how we were going to announce the results. And that’s when we changed our name from Toxic in Tonawanda to Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.
Building the “Bucket” with Denny Larson, 2003 Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources
The Tonawanda Bucket Brigade, 2004 Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources
Besides benzene, we also found another chemical called carbon disulfide that we were concerned about. We figured out this was coming from 3M which has a sponge company in Tonawanda.
3M Factory, as seen in Google Maps
See, Tonawanda was a complicated situation because there were 54 air regulated facilities in a very concentrated area. Tonawanda has the highest concentration of regulated facilities in all of New York State. It was hard to figure out who was doing what. It took a lot of research. So we figured it out, it was carbon disulfide and benzene. Carbon disulfide was easy to figure out, 3M was really the only source. So we met with 3M, trying to do the good neighbor campaign. We met with the owners and we were pretty satisfied. We were working with an engineer at the NYS DEC that we felt we could trust and he went there with us. 3M actually flew someone in from their headquarters to give us a presentation on everything that they’re doing to reduce emissions in Tonawanda. They treated us very respectfully. They met with us, said, “This is what we’re doing,” and guess what? They did it!
So we were like, “OK! This seems pretty easy. Let’s move on to the next one.” Beginner’s luck. Well, then the fun began! So the benzene. We took the sample not far from the expressway, but we didn’t know where it was coming from. We had our monthly meetings at the local fire hall on Saturday mornings, and one Saturday morning this engineer from NYS DEC attended our meeting. He was the one who said, “You might really want to take a look at Tonawanda Coke. The owner is sort of a bad actor.” He was the one that started dropping ideas to us at those Saturday morning meetings that maybe something was up.
Tonawanda Coke, 2018. Image courtesy of Paul Leuchner of Citizen Science Community Resources
We were working very closely with DEC at this point. This engineer named Al Carlacci was very respectful to us. He listened to us. We were respectful too. We didn’t demand anything. It was really about relationship building and getting to that point of trusting each other, which is huge. Figuring out who you can trust, who you can’t, who’s going to help you, who’s not going to help you. Anyway, this guy Al was really a good guy, he meant it. So he took our data and said, “Yeah, you know, it’s high, but it’s only one three minute sample.”
So he started his own investigation with the summa canisters. He took the canisters out -- I’m not sure how many samples he took -- and sure enough, replicated what we got in the bucket. Based on what we did, and his results, the NYS DEC applied for an EPA grant for air monitors in Tonawanda. They were awarded a $600,000 EPA grant to place four trailers in our communities to collect air samples and analyze those air samples for one year, from 2007-2008.
NYS DEC Air Monitoring Trailers, 2007 Image courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
That was a big win for us, to get those air monitors.
About six months into their study, we received some preliminary results. Again, at that point, nothing was for sure, but it started to look more and more like the main source of benzene was Tonawanda Coke. In Fall 2008, based on the data and the DEC engineer, and people’s stories, putting everything together, we still sort of felt like we were doing a lot of different things.
Tonawanda Clean Air members meet with Lois Gibbs (second from left, front row),
Jackie James Creedon (center, front row). Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources
Lois Gibb’s (Citizen Health and Environmental Justice) group came into Tonawanda in 2008 to help us get organized. The best advice they gave us was, “There’s not many of you, so it’s best to draw the line in the sand and concentrate on one thing.” After that, we decided that we were going to run a direct campaign against Tonawanda Coke in Fall 2008.
Our first step was to try and meet with the owner of Tonawanda Coke! We sent him a letter and said we wanted to meet. We’ve got this preliminary data, we’ve done the research which showed with the EPA TRI that Tonawanda Coke was one of the highest sources of benzene in our community. We received a letter back from their lawyer saying, “We don’t want to meet with you. We are a good neighbor.”
We asked them three times. The first one was the letter and we were rejected. The second time we decided to hold a forum where we invited J.D. Crane --the owner -- to this community forum and put a chair up on stage with his name on it. We invited everyone from the neighborhood to describe how his pollution was impacting our health. That was a media event, part of the campaign to hold Tonawanda Coke accountable. We started ratcheting up the pressure. In April 2009 the EPA special investigative forces from Denver came in to conduct an investigation. That was really important, because it was based on a lot of the work that we had done and the collaboration with DEC and EPA that spurred this investigation in April 2009. At the same time, Obama had just come into office, and he gave the EPA a lot of authority to investigate these bad actors.
That was spring of 2009. DEC came to Tonawanda in June 2009 to give their results of that one year study from the air monitors. What they had announced was the smoking gun. That data, that study was the smoking gun that we all needed. Between us starting the direct campaign in 2008 and the EPA coming to Tonawanda and then the DEC announcing the results in June 2009, the pressure was really mounting. At the June 2009 meeting, the officials announced that hazardous air pollutants, HAPs, in Tonawanda were elevated and needed to be reduced, and the most concerning was benzene.
They took these four air monitors and triangulated what direction the benzene was coming from based on wind roses. This one slide was perfect, it triangulated and in the middle of the triangle was Tonawanda Coke with a circle around it. “The predominant source was Tonawanda Coke.”
Benzene pollution roses, image courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
At that point, I remember in the auditorium standing up and clapping, because here I am, a scientist thinking, “This is it!” It’s all over and done with. Here’s the science, it’s gotta be enough. I was wrong, it wasn’t enough. After that I thought the EPA and DEC would come in and start doing stuff right away, but they didn’t. It was really frustrating. We knew we were in a gas chamber and they weren’t doing anything about it.
At the same time, I was getting tired with fibromyalgia again. We were making huge strides, but it was exhausting. I knew that we needed a good push to get the agencies to act on the situation. So we decided to hire a community organizer that had experience with organizing, more than what we had. In September 2009, I stepped down as Executive Director of the Clean Air Coalition and we hired a young experienced organizer. We had asked J.D. Crane to meet with us three times, and three times we had been rejected. We knew we needed to hold a protest outside the gates of Tonawanda Coke. That was our new Executive Director’s first directive from the board.
Tonawanda’s Clean Air members hold a protest outside the gates of Tonawanda Coke, October 2009 Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources
We held the protest and we got phenomenal coverage. We were on the front page of the Buffalo News, huge article. Tons of press. This was exactly what we needed, because it got the attention of the Department of Justice. Aaron Mango, a resident of Buffalo, is a prosecuting attorney for the Department of Justice for the Western New York region. He just happened to go to his parent’s house that Sunday and saw the paper on the kitchen table. It caught his eyes right away. He read the whole thing.
The two things he said stood out to him were the people’s stories and the data, the statistics, when the New York State Department of Health came in and there were all the cancers.
Buffalo News article that caught Aaron Mango’s attention, October 11, 2009. Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources
So here you have cancers you know are high, and you have people’s stories, the complaints. The next day, he wrote an email to Washington DC and said, “I want to investigate this company, something doesn’t seem right.”
We had a multiprong campaign approach. Not only did we have New York State DEC and EPA coming at them from the civil side, but then the Department of Justice came in on a federal investigation, which was huge. When the federal government starts to investigate, they don’t tell you much. We didn’t even know Aaron Mango saw this. The next thing we knew, two days before Christmas in 2009, the DEC, the EPA, the federal agents -- the US Coast Guard -- raided Tonawanda Coke and took out the environmental manager in handcuffs. They arrested him. We had no idea that was coming. 2009 was a good year, we really accomplished a lot. But there was a lot of work that led up to these victories.
How did DEC and EPA find out about the bucket samples?
It was the DEC engineer, Al Carlacci. He got involved because he really cared. It wasn’t his facility, but he was helping us out.
Larry Sitzman and one or two engineers who worked with Al had done the inspections of Tonawanda Coke, and they were turning their heads. I heard stories about envelopes being exchanged to look the other way. DEC was criticized for letting this go on for a very long time. We didn’t know how bad it was until we saw the photographs, when the DOJ went in, they took all these photographs. It was absolutely horrendous. How could someone turn their head on this?
A coal tar moat under dilapidated piping at Tonawanda Coke, 2018 Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources
But they did. Al Carlacci, he was our champion. You can have an organization with good guys and bad guys in the same organization. People said to us, “New York State DEC, you can’t trust them.” It wasn’t necessarily true. You’ve got to weed out who you can trust and who you can’t. It’s about building that trust, those relationships with people that have information and or power that you can rely on.
You didn’t solicit the lawsuit?
No, not at all. It was mainly science, citizen science, or community science. And then we learned how to organize. Later on came the lawsuits.
That’s an incredible chain of events.
It started with the bucket, then Al Carlacci did his test, which confirmed the bucket, and then the large study confirmed the previous two small studies with more information about where the benzene was coming. That data was huge. It was absolutely huge, the Department of Justice investigations, and the EPA when they came in in April 2009. That was 2010, we started in 2002.
. CSCR members outside the shuttered Tonawanda Coke, October 2019 Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources
Everything moves very slowly. What would happen is that we would take breaks, we would get tired out. We would come back to it. For me personally, there was always something that drew me back. So many times, I said that’s it, no more, because it was so much work. And I would always come back. But those breaks were really important, because it’s tiring work. A lot of people are really gung ho in the beginning, and then they peter out and they really do give up. These companies and these agencies, they bet on the people who give up, because it’s like a David and Goliath thing. It really is about running a marathon.
What happened after the lawsuits were initiated?
There were two parallel tracks. Since the DOJ got involved, it put a thorn EPA’s side to get the civil enforcements going. We had federal and civil actions, and on top of it we had personal lawsuits that came soon after. It was sort of complicated. It really initiated the EPA to get their act going and hammer down on Tonawanda Coke. They had negotiated with the owner to reduce their emissions. But before that, EPA ordered Tonawanda Coke to hire an independent third party engineering firm to measure the amount of benzene that was actually coming off the company using something called DIAL testing, differential absorption light detection. The EPA and DEC had data from the air monitors in Tonawanda, but they didn’t have stack and process monitoring data from Tonawanda Coke.
These companies self-report, which is another horrible situation. As residents, we are relying on these companies that pollute to tell the truth. Well, generally speaking they don’t tell the truth. Not only was Tonawanda Coke not telling the truth, they were really not telling the truth. When EPA came in with DIAL testing, they discovered that Tonawanda Coke was grossly underreporting their benzene emissions. TCC was reporting that they were emitting ten tons of benzene per year, when in actuality they were emitting 91 tons per year. When I saw that, I was like, “We are living in a gas chamber. This is horrible.”
At state or federal permitted facilities, there may be multiple sources of pollution (into the air, soil, and/or water) coming from one company. Each emission source requires a permit. There were a couple of air permitted sources at Tonawanda Coke. However, there was something that seemed to be amiss because the discharge numbers weren’t adding up correctly. Al Carlacci and the DOJ figured out that there had to be another source of benzene pollution that TCC was not telling them about. Sure enough they were right! There was an emission source called a pressure release valve. TCC was emitting tons and tons of benzene and coke oven gas, and it was mostly coming from this unregulated valve. This all came out in the federal case against Tonawanda Coke.
In March 2013, there was a trial. When the federal government comes after you -- there were 15 indictments, mainly violations of the Clean Air Act -- you settle out of court because you know chances are you’re gonna lose. Well, Tonawanda Coke did not settle. They fought us. And then they fought everybody: the DEC, the EPA, and the DOJ. There was a trial and all this information came out in the trial. It was very interesting. What we found out in the trial was that there was this pressure release valve.
We also found out that employees were directed to conceal and hide that pressure release valve. And that is why the environmental manager went to jail. He was found guilty of obstruction of justice. When the EPA investigators came in, lo and behold, guess what happened? The pressure release valve went off. That was unbelievable. The inspector said, “What’s that?” and the employee said, “Oh, it’s just steam.” Well guess what? It wasn’t just steam. The agencies and DOJ suspected that most of this benzene -- this 91 tons of benzene -- was coming from this unregulated air source, and Tonawanda Coke tried to conceal it!
Tonawanda Coke and their environmental manager were found guilty in March of 2013. There was a year in between the guilty verdict and sentencing, March 2014. At that point I thought, “Oh great! That’s the end! We won!” The DOJ, the special investigator that we were working with said, “Jackie, if you have a guilty verdict, we’re only halfway there. We need a good sentence.” Judge Skretny requested that the community send in their stories. We rallied the community to send in their stories and weigh in on the sentencing of Tonawanda Coke and the environmental manager. The judge also wanted the community to submit project proposals for possible funding at the sentencing of Tonawanda Coke.
At this point we were testing residents’ soil. Once again (as with the benzene pollution), this testing started because of people’s stories. Folks were complaining about these black gooey substances flying through the air and burning holes in people’s vegetable plants, and in the paint on their cars. So we started doing soil testing and sure enough, we found contamination in the soil. We took that data and put it into a $700K project proposal and submitted it to the judge.
It all came down to one day in March of 2014, this one person, Judge Skretny, deciding the fate of Tonawanda Coke and the environmental manager. Was the community going to get anything? This case was historical in a lot of ways. It was only the second time in history that a company was convicted under the Clean Air Act in a federal lawsuit, and it was the first time that a judge ordered community projects as a term of probation at sentencing. At the sentencing, TCC was ordered to pay $12.5 million in fines and $12.2 million in community studies. So he funded the community, and our $700,000 soil study!
That was huge! We were not even a non-profit. He also funded an $11 million University of Buffalo health study. The environmental manager was sentenced to a year in jail. He was fined $20,000. It was obviously a big win for our community. And on the civil side, Tonawanda Coke agreed to install pollution control equipment. Their benzene was reduced by 86 percent in our community. We got our reduction in benzene. TCC didn't fight the civil actions, they settled that case. There was also $1.3 million set aside for community projects. In total, the community got over $13 million for environment and health projects..
In the same year, J.D. Crane, the owner of TCC, had passed away. He was 92 years old. His grandson, Paul Saffrin, took over the business. Mr. Saffrin vowed that he was going to turn everything around and be a good neighbor. We thought as a community, “OK, we got our benzene reductions, we got our community projects, let’s give this guy a chance.” But over the next several years, nothing really had changed.
This facility was a 100 year old facility. Just the nature of such an old dilapidated factory, there were things that were polluting our community, and people were still dying. OSHA wound up going in. There was this incident where the safety control on a conveyor belt wasn’t put into place and a gentleman’s zipper on his jacket got caught. Poor guy got pulled in and died! Things like this kept happening. Another time, there was an explosion. People got hurt. We would hear stories about something happening consistently. TCC employees were leaking information to community members, and then other community members were calling me. The DEC would get an inclination that something happened, and they would follow up. Tonawanda Coke would give them a bullshit story. Some employees with Tonawanda Coke were talking with people from the community and calling me with the real story, and then I was going back to the DEC. Again and again and again, there were these upsets. They’d lie about it. They’d get caught again. It was continuous.
The final upset happened in January 2018. There was an underground tunnel that collapsed. We started seeing black billowing smoke coming out of the facility again. TCC was giving us bullshit again, “It will be fixed, it will be fixed.” Everyone started taking photographs and putting them on social media. At this point, TCC was still under probation with the DOJ and the DEC was on their butt too. Everyone was so sick of this company. The amount of energy that went into trying to keep these guys following environmental rules and regulations was enormous. It was ridiculous.
There was a huge fire in July of 2018. The fire trucks came to Tonawanda Coke. We started getting all these complaints and people taking photographs from the expressway. A few TCC employees drove a forklift to the entrance of Tonawanda Coke and wouldn’t let the fire company in. They told them, “Go away, we’ve got it handled.” TCC was such a bad actor. That’s when we ran the campaign, StoptheStacks.
At this point, the community, elected officials and the agencies had had enough. We gave them another shot, but they blew it. We decided, “We want them gone.” Our local official, Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joe Emminger and the town board all went on record saying, “This company needs to go.” That was huge, because they had had enough too. “The amount of taxes we are getting from this company are nothing compared to the people who are being put into harm’s way, the workers who were put into harm’s way, the pollution, the stress. “ So that was it. A multipronged approach with everyone rounding the wagons against Tonawanda Coke.
In October of 2018 Tonawanda Coke announced that they were closing their doors and shuttering the plant. That’s the end! We have clean air now in Tonawanda. Our cancer risk due to benzene, at one point, was 75 times New York State guidelines. Now it’s down to New York State averages. We also have a significant reduction in particulate matter and many other toxins. All those other companies, when they heard and saw what the community had done, they really got their act together and installed more air pollution equipment. It was a domino effect. We were to be taken seriously.
Image courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
It wasn’t like that at the beginning. At the beginning we didn’t even go to our elected officials because very few wanted to be on our side.. But it was the data, and working with NYS DEC and EPA. When we had that solid data from the NYS DEC “Tonawanda Community Air Quality Study”, that’s when everything turned around.
In March 2014, Tonawanda Coke was fined $12.5 million and ordered to pay $12.2 million in community service projects by the U.S. Department of Justice after the company was indicted and convicted of breaking federal criminal and environmental laws the previous year. It was only the second time in history that a federal criminal case had been successfully tried under the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). In subsequent civil proceedings, the company settled a suit with the State of New York and the EPA by signing a consent decree and paid $2.75 million in civil penalties for violations of the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Clean Water Act (CWA), and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). Additionally, the company spent approximately $7.9 million to reduce air pollution and enhance air and water quality, and $1.3 million for environmental projects in the area of Tonawanda, New York.
What was your journey like? How did you build knowledge over the course of this campaign?
My background is science. Science always intrigued me. I like to ask a lot of questions, put it all together, and try and figure things out. I think that the biggest knowledge that I personally gained was this: I thought once we had this data, that that would bring us a victory. I was wrong. It was a significant pivotal moment in the story; however, it wasn’t enough. I’ve heard from other communities who use citizen or community science, that they struggle with same thing. The science is not enough. It’s about taking that science, and learning how to use it to advocate for your community. A big part of winning is about relationship building.
Do you think this project would have been different if DEC had not done the follow up study?
I think Tonawanda Coke would still be operating today. I had a resident call me the other day and say thank you. It had dawned on him, because of this COVID-19 situation, how it impacts people’s lungs. That’s how their coke oven gas was impacting our community. It’s benzene, but it’s also black soot, particulate matter. He said, “Oh my gosh, if TCC’s air emissions hadn't been eliminated, we would be much more sick with COVID.” We really saved lives. However, there were a lot of lives that were lost. It tore my heart out so many times. People who had cancer that we lost. They knew in their heart what had caused their cancer and wanted to do something about it for the short period of time they had left.
Why did you decide to change the name?
In 2003, when we started we called ourselves Toxic in Tonawanda. But after we collected the first set of data, we thought that name was a little too radical. We wanted to seem credible. That’s when we changed our name. The original group was the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, now we’re Citizen Science Community Resources.
What do you remember most vividly about doing this work?
It’s taken a long time for me to digest everything. That all of this happened.. It’s important for me to tell the story because I remember how important it is to pass along the lessons learned. Much of our society operates by putting profits and power ahead of the environment and people's health. I didn't know this before. It was a sad reality for me. TCC polluted our community because they thought they were above the law. All at the expense of our health and our environment. We need to change our systems where we give more significance to saving people's lives and health and safety of our communities.
What would you recommend to others who are just starting a campaign like this?
I remember Denny talking about this. Usually fighting lean and mean is a good idea. It’s really important to be careful about who you bring into the fold, into the core group, and to be able to rely on those people. There were many times when I took the lead, or Tim took the lead, or Adele took the lead. We sort of cycled. But the four of us -- mainly the three of us -- we were all on the same wavelength. The environment and health of our community always came first.
These small meetings with the state agencies were so important. Don’t bring the issue up in the media right away, then you lose all sorts of trust. Media should be used right at the end as a last ditch effort. We went to the agencies first and built a working relationship with the people we could trust. There’s certain parts of the story that I feel are really important -- this, for instance, was really critical in why we were successful.
And it’s about community science. That’s what it was! Community science.
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This guide is a Beta version and is currently being tested! Testing may take longer than planned as due to supply chain issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic some hardware components might be temporarily unavailable.
We document here only a few ways to receive an Automatic Picture Transmission (APT) from active National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites. Other software and hardware setups are possible! Importantly, the guide is limited to Windows and MacOS. Please get in touch if you would like to contribute instructions for Linux or another operating system.
NOAA 19 N 80 W 2020-05-17 18-03 BST Multi-spectral Analysis
Note: #open-weather hopes to publish a tutorial on DIY antenna design and construction soon!
MacOS 10.15 Catalina compatibility issues
If you are running MacOS 10.15 Catalina you will not be able to download, install and use WXtoImg. This is because 10.15 Catalina no longer supports 32 bit applications. If you are in this position you have several options:
Once you've assembled the hardware, a day to half a day, a little patience and, ideally, a buddy to do things like hold your antenna while you tune the software.
|APT||Automatic Picture Transmission|
|NOAA||National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration|
|MacOS||Mac or Macintosh Operating System|
|SDR||Software Defined Radio|
|WAV||Waveform Audio File|
|AVHRR||Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer|
|LEO||Low Earth Orbit|
How do NOAA satellites collect data?
The images transmitted by NOAA satellites are produced by the satellite's primary scanning instrument called the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR). The instrument is designed to detect five channels of radiant energy from the surface of the Earth ranging from the visible spectrum to the near-infrared and infrared or thermal spectra. As the satellite passes over a given part of the earth, the AVHRR sensors collect and transmit data in near-real time. Think of the satellite as scanning Earth's surface line by line. In the resulting images each pixel is approximately 4 × 4 km.
How do they transmit data?
The NOAA satellites have inbuilt radio antennas that transmit the data collected by the AVHRR instrument on a frequency in the 137 MHz range. To minimise interference between satellites, each NOAA satellite transmits on a different frequency within the 137 MHz range.
How do NOAA satellites orbit?
NOAA satellites orbit the Earth sun-synchronously. A sun-synchronous orbit is a nearly polar orbit in which the satellite passes over a given point of the planet's surface at the same time everyday. The NOAA satellites follow a Low Earth Orbit (LEO). A LEO is an Earth-centered orbit with an altitude below 2,000 km. Each satellite circles the Earth approximately every 100 minutes.
What does the antenna do?
Your antenna is a sensor. It catches electromagnetic waves and transforms them into an electrical current i.e. an electrical signal. All antennas are tuned to specific frequency ranges meaning that they receive or transmit these frequencies best. Most antennas are directional.
What does the RF cable do?
An RF cable is an insulated radio frequency cable. It includes a central conductor surrounded by a shield conductor. The cable carries electrical signals from one point to another (i.e. from your antenna to your dongle) without introducing interference.
What does the dongle do?
The dongle receives the electrical signal from the coaxial cable, filters it, and converts it from analogue to a digital I/Q so that it can be read by your computer.
Why do you need software?
You need software to process the digital signal sent to your computer by your dongle. Software makes these signals visible and audible; other software decodes the signals transmitted by the satellites into visual images.
What are the different kinds of software needed?
To decode transmissions from satellites, you need three kinds of software:
How can I practice using SDR software?
The best way to practice using SDR technologies is to take your equipment (antenna, computer, dongle and cables) out into a nearby open space, plug everything in, launch your SDR software, and have fun exploring the radio spectrum. You can try things like changing modes (modulation), scrolling through ham radio bands, and switching frequencies. See below for start up guide to SDR software.
How do you connect your SDR software to your satellite decoding software?
No matter what kind of computer you have and what kind of SDR software you prefer, you need to send the audio output from your SDR software to your satellite decoding software (e.g. WXtoImg). You can use a range of free software to act as the 'virtual cable' between the SDR software and satellite decoding software. @sophied uses Soundflower (for Mac) while @sashae prefers VB Cable (for Windows 10).
1. Connect your antenna to your RF cable. (If you need to assemble your antenna do this first)
2. Screw the coaxial cable into the non-USB side of the dongle (Be careful not to over tighten the cable connector as they are easily destroyed. No more than finger tight)
3. Plug your dongle into a free USB port on your computer
2. Follow the install instructions on the application's website.
@sashae decoding a NOAA satellite pass using SDR# and WXtoImg
1. Download and install SDR#.
2. Plug your dongle into a USB port. Launch SDR#.
SDR# start-up window
3. Select your Dongle type. Use the arrow to Select Source > [Your Dongle]
4. Set the Samplerate. In the left panel, scroll down to view the Audio settings. Select Samplerate > 192,000 sample/second.
5. Adjust Audio Input and Output settings. Make sure the audio input is your computer's soundcard. For @sashae this means selecting MME Microsoft soundcard from the input list. Make sure the audio output is your virtual audio cable.
SDR# audio settings
6. Start receiving: Click the Play button at the top left of the window.
7. Tune to a frequency: In the frequency display box, click on the upper half of each number to increase, and the lower half to decrease frequency. You can also click, drag and scroll through frequencies using the waterfall display.
Changing frequency in SDR#
8. Changing Modes: click bubbles labelled AM, NFM, WFM, USB, LSB, CW at the left panel to change the mode in which data is demodulated by the software. For receiving transmissions from NOAA satellites, Choose WFM or "Wide FM".
Selecting modes in SDR#
9. Adjusting Bandwidth: in the left panel, find the window for bandwidth; use your number keys or the small up / down arrows to increase or decrease bandwidth. For receiving satellite transmissions, select a bandwidth between 36,000 - 45,000 KHz.
Tip: You can also use your mouse: in the waterfall display, click on the edge of the frequency range and drag left or right to manually increase or decrease bandwidth.
10. Adjusting Volume: drag the Volume slider to increase or decrease.
Tip: Other settings in SDR# can remain in default modes; For example the Filter in SDR# can remain Blackman-Harris 4.
@sophied decoding a NOAA satellite pass using CubicSDR and WXtoImg
1. Download and install CubicSDR.
Tip: You will be directed to the most recent version of CubicSDR on GitHub. If you cannot see a file with "Mac" in its name, look for "Darwin". Why? MacOS software runs off a piece of open source software called Darwin.
2. Launch CubicSDR
3. In the dialog window select your dongle from the Devices list and click Start. For example, for the RTL-SDR dongle select "Generic RTL2832U OEM :: 00000001".
CubicSDR Dialogue window
Tip: If you do not know it already, find out the sample rate of your dongle. When the dongle is selected, its sample rate will be displayed in the table on the right side of the dialogue window. Make a note of it.
4. Click Sample Rate and select the correct sample rate for your dongle. The sample rate for the RTL-SDR dongle is 1.92 MHz.
Sample Rate menu in CubicSDR
5. To check CubicSDR is working, click anywhere on the bottom waterfall.
The default settings for Cubic SDR are:
|Modulation type||FM (Frequency Modulation)|
|Demodulation frequency||100 MHz|
|Audio out||You computer’s default audio output|
Tip: In Europe, the 100 MHz area of the radio spectrum is used for public radio broadcasts. If you click on an area of the waterfall in yellow or orange you should hear a radio station.
Tip: CubicSDR offers useful Hover Tips and information on commands and shortcuts in the bottom bar of the window. Hover Tips are switched on by default and are a great way to get to know the software. If you want to turn them off, click Settings > deselect Show hover tips. Take time to explore these!
6. Tune to a frequency. There are three easy ways to tune to a frequency in CubicSDR
Tuning to a frequency in CubicSDR
Click on the lower waterfall.
Begin typing a number. A pop-up window will appear. Complete typing the frequency you want and, on your keyboard, press Return. Remember, the default until is Megahertz, always written as MHz. Megahertz is a unit of frequency equal to one million hertz.
Frequency pop-up window in CubicSDR
7. To change "Modulation type" or modes, on the top left select AM, FMS, NBFM, AM, LSB, USB, DSB, I/Q. NOAA satellite transmissions are FM, which is the acronym for Frequency Modulation.
8. Adjust the bandwidth. Under the label Bandwidth, click on the upper and lower parts of the numbers.
9. Adjust the audio output volume. In the top left, click and drag the vertical green bar.
10. Select the audio output: click the audio-out dropdown in the top left corner and choose your virtual audio device that you previously setup. In @sophied 's case this is "Soundflower (2ch)".
1. Download and install WXtoImg.
Tip: when you first launch WXtoImg, you will be taken through a series of steps to tailor the software to your computer. Go through the steps. Then follow the instructions below.
2. Assigning your Ground Station Location. Select Options > Ground Station Location (you can either search for a city or input your latitude and longitude manually)
Ground station location in WXtoImg
3. Update Keplers. Select File > Update Keplers (It is good to update Keplers before every satellite decoding session to maintain accuracy) (the computer must be connected to the Internet for this to work)
4. Adjusting the Map Overlay settings. Select Options > Map Overlay Options
Tip: You can choose in what colour you would like the map to appear and ground station to appear, or choose to hide them)
5. Adjust the Recording Options: Select Options > Recording Options
WXtoImg: Recording Options Dialogue Box
6. Checking the Satellite Pass List: Select File > Satellite Pass List. This will generate a window with upcoming times at which NOAA satellites will pass over your ground station location)
1. Tune to an FM radio station (around 100 Mhz) using your preferred SDR software
Tip: Since you are piping the audio coming from the SDR software to WXtoImg with a virtual audio cable you should not be able to hear the station through your computer speakers. If you can hear the station, adjust your Audio Output.
2. In WXtoImg, Select Record > Manual Test.
3. Do lines filled with tiny dots or speckles start loading in the WXtoImg window? If so, WXtoImg can hear your radio software and the audio connection is working.
WXtoImg attempting to decode FM radio static
4. In the bottom right, is the volume level green? If it is 'in the green' this means the signal is in a good range for decoding. If it is not green (e.g. if it is red or yellow) adjust the volume on your SDR software until the WXtoImg volume becomes green.
Important to know:
When is the next 'good' satellite pass over your location?
A 'good' pass is a pass that is more than 10 minutes long. In the Satellite Pass list, Duration is measured in minutes. In the Satellite Pass list generated by WXtoImg, find the next 11+ minute pass.
Satellite pass list in WXtoImg
Tip: the list shows Local Time and UTC Time. Take note of the difference.
What direction is the satellite traveling?
In the Satellite Pass List, note whether the satellite is Northbound or Southbound. Also note whether the satellite will be to the east or west of you, and at what maximum elevation. For example: a NOAA 15 Southbound pass at 49W MEL (Maximum Elevation) means the satellite is traveling south and at its max elevation (mid way through the pass) it will be 49 degrees out of 90 (where 90 is directly overhead) to the west. This means that mid way through the pass, you should be aiming your antenna diagonally upward to the west at a 49 degree angle.
What frequency will the satellite be transmitting on?
Make sure to note down the frequency of your chosen satellite pass (see the rightmost column in the Satellite Pass List where Frequency is listed in Mhz).
Where can you best receive this transmission in your local area?
The transmission is best received from a wide open area with a good horizon. This could be a park, a parking lot, a rooftop, a hill, a beach or a balcony (as long as the balcony has a clear view of the path of the satellite)
1. A few minutes before the pass is due to start. On WXtoImg Select File > Record > Auto Record; When the satellite passes over the elevation you designated in the Recording Options dialogue box, you should start receiving a signal.
2. The satellite signal looks like a faint series of dots and dashes that will begin to appear on the waterfall display of your SDR software;
Traces in the SDR# waterfall display
3. When you see the satellite signal, adjust the frequency (if needed) so that the SDR / radio software is centred on the signal. This might mean increasing the frequency 1 or 2 MHz
4. Adjust for the Doppler shift. The frequency of the transmission 'drifts' from a little higher than the satellite's designated frequency to a little lower than the designated frequency. During the pass adjust for this Doppler shift by using the arrows or dragging in the waterfall display to keep the radio software centred on the satellite signal.
5. Remember to track the satellite as it orbits overhead. You can let the visible strength of the signal guide you.
Tip: you will see a marked difference in signal strength on the waterfall display if you are pointing the antenna in the right direction vs. the wrong direction.
6. Periodically check WXtoImg to make sure the volume is green and the pass is being decoded.
WXtoImg window: live-decoding a satellite image from NOAA 19
7. When the pass is over, WXtoImg will begin to automatically process the raw data. You will see the software 'working' as it combines information from different sensors to produce a series of b/w and colour images. When it is done processing 'Done' will appear in the bottom left of the window.
8. Stop WXtoImg from waiting for the next satellite by selecting File > Stop.
9. The image you have just received will be stored in the Raw Images tab. You can double click on the raw image of the pass and then use the Enhancements menu to look through the different combinations of sensor data.
10. The raw image and audio file unique to this pass will also be saved in WXtoImg's 'Raw' and 'Audio' folders on your computer.
My satellite decoding software loads a black image during the test
This means there is something wrong in the connection between your SDR / radio software and WXtoImg. You need to double check all of the connections and virtual audio cables. Double check the Audio Output on your SDR software and the Soundcard (Audio Input) in WXtoImg.
The volume is in the red, close to 0 during the test
This means that the signal coming into WXtoImg is far too quiet for WXtoImg to be able to process it. Turn up the volume on your SDR software. If this doesn't work there may be an issue with the audio inputs and outputs connecting the SDR software to WXtoImg.
On MacOS, check that the Master volume for Soundflower is not turned down.
1. Application > Utilities > Audio MIDI Setup 2. In Audio MIDI Setup, select Soundflower (ch2) 3. Drag the level of the Master volume to the maximum value, usually 1
Catching a satellite, London, 2020
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Note: this statement was previously shared in our monthly newsletter
Black Lives Matter. Public Lab stands with the millions around the world who have raised their voices in protest of police brutality and systemic injustices toward Black lives. Further, from the expansion of oil and gas facilities in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, to the chronic inaction toward the effects of climate, and the systematic targeting of polluting industries towards BIPOC communities — all stem from a legacy that is rooted in and perpetuated by oppression, racism, and violence.
We commit to supporting Black voices, movements, and organizations. We commit to centering those that have historically been (and continue to be) excluded from science, technology, and environmental decision-making. We commit to maintaining a welcoming community, free from racism, with accessible places of entry into community science that elevate, build, and strengthen the capacities of communities and their leaders to rise. And we commit to dedicating our resources to forefronting leadership from those disproportionately affected by environmental injustices and systemic racism.
Public Lab recognizes and honors the lived experiences and expertise, and strives to build relationships grounded in trust with frontline communities. We envision a future where those most impacted by environmental injustices direct the efforts to protect their communities, collective health, and well-being.
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The "bucket" is a low-cost, community-friendly air sampler that helps people measure toxic chemicals such as benzene and hydrogen sulfide in their air. Developed in the late 1990s, it was one of the first (if not the very first) do-it-together environmental monitors. Communities living next to oil refineries and petrochemical plants gathered to build their own buckets. They established phone trees to make sure that, when noxious fumes enveloped their neighborhood, someone would take a sample. They used measurements from the samples to hold companies accountable, not only for their emissions but for lying to communities about them.
The buckets were a source of inspiration for each of us, early in our careers. Gwen saw them as a powerful new way that communities could participate in science and challenge the shortcomings of scientists' approaches to understanding pollution. They led her to her dissertation research and inform the conclusions of the book she is currently writing about the role of science in restorative justice. Throughout Shannon's early career, she focused on creating collaborative spaces by connecting people to their local environment using science, art, and media. Attracted to working with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade because of the direct link the organizing model made between science, data, and advocacy, Shannon went on to co-found Public Lab. Her hope was that, in a time of rapid technological innovation, Public Lab could be a vehicle to build on and expand the science and advocacy model into other realms of addressing environmental injustices.
Revisiting the bucket in 2020
Over the past decade, buckets have fallen out of favor. Communities have become more focused on particulate matter, which buckets don't measure, even though toxic chemicals are still a problem. They seek continuous measurements of air pollution, rather than the snapshots of just the worst moments. Regulators are increasingly willing to support community monitoring, but homemade technology has seldom been incorporated into these projects.
All of these trends in air monitoring have their benefits. But the buckets have singular advantages. They are hands-on and highly visible. Their results are easily linked to concrete demands for change. They let people take action in the moments when they may feel the most powerless. They remain an important part of the community monitoring toolkit.
While buckets are still important, the infrastructure for supporting communities in building, deploying, and organizing around them is eroding. The organization Global Community Monitor was a hub for bucket-related resources and expertise, as well as the institutional memory of the bucket brigade movement. Its dissolution in 2016 left a hole that can only partially be filled by regional organizations.
We want to make sure that environmental justice communities continue to have the ability to measure toxic chemicals (as well as particulate matter). With support from the 11th Hour Project, we've launched a project to update and open-source the plans for buckets, to identify best practices for incorporating them into community campaigns, and to create a blueprint for an infrastructure to offer support and mentorship to people who want to use buckets.
We extend deep appreciation to groups such as Global Community Monitor, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Communities for a Better Environment, and the self-organizing and regional bucket brigades around the world, for decades of work building buckets, refining their design, and developing a model for integrating buckets into organizing. We will be building on their work within the infrastructure of Public Lab. That will mean using wiki-based collaborative editing, individual research notes, a question and answer system, and activities, to comprehensively document the bucket tool, the ways in which it can be used, and steps for getting people started. We'll also leverage the social network of Public Lab, which links technologists, scientists, educators, and organizers together to integrate tools like this into strong, collaborative systems that support the efforts of communities impacted by industry.
Through the end of 2020, you can expect to see:
We encourage everyone to follow along and get involved by subscribing to the "bucket-monitor" tag on Public Lab.
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Over the past year we’ve been working hard on a new system for exporting maps in MapKnitter, and have been beta testing the new “Cloud Exporter” for the past several weeks.
Today we’re shutting down the old exporting system as a part of the full launch of MapKnitter 3.0, and I wanted to offer a little background on this transition.
What is exporting in MapKnitter? Basically, when you upload a bunch of aerial photos -- from a balloon mapping trip, for example -- you have just a collection of images on a map. It’s interactive, and it’s great for viewing online, but there are a variety of reasons you might want to download a single, high resolution combined image of your entire map:
Folks have been used to being able to download a copy of their map in this way, in JPG, GeoTIFF, or even TMS format. But it hasn’t been easy!
This exporting process can often take HOURS, because it involves processing GIGANTIC images -- it’s not unusual to see a 20,000x20,000 pixel image result from a big map! This was all running on our server, and any time you’ve seen slowness on MapKnitter.org, it’s likely that the website was in the middle of a major export. It’s not a great way to run a website, and it was pretty expensive as well.
What we’ve done is to create a cloud-based exporting service that’s completely separate from MapKnitter.org, and to which we submit jobs, almost like a printer. That means there is no effect on the website speed, and theoretically, you can submit as many jobs as you like, and our system can scale up to handle them. It’s still not free, so please go easy (or consider donating to support our work!) -- but it is pay-as-you-go, so we’re not always paying for a massive server to be online all the time in case someone runs an export. We also incorporated a lot of other improvements. So, what’s changed?
This release coincides with a LOT of other changes across the entire MapKnitter.org website, many of which came out of last summer’s Google Summer of Code program, and the Google Community Atlas grant we received in 2018-19. These include:
And literally thousands of other changes and refinements, many “under the hood” that you may never notice, but which have been critical to updating the MapKnitter codebase to 2020 and ensuring it is maintainable, sustainable, and reliable for years to come.
Thanks to EVERYONE who helped to make this happen!
You can read more about the exporter on this page: https://publiclab.org/wiki/mapknitter-cloud-exporter
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In the first weeks after the BP oil disaster — what would become the largest oil spill in U.S. history — concerned residents came together with weather balloons, rigged with digital cameras, to document the extent of the damage to the beaches and wetlands, fisheries and wildlife. Photos and the resulting maps we created with our “community satellites” showed the damage and the scale of the disaster, and would go on to be shared with media around the world.
In the wake of the spill, we began to question how we could use this success as a model to help redistribute power, by making science something that anyone could access — where people with different forms of expertise are recognized for the value of lived experience and local know-how. We envisioned a network in which people down the block or on the other side of the world could work together on solutions, learning from each other’s experiences. It was through these ideals that Public Lab and our community science movement were born.
We're committed to building a healthier and more equitable world, and we're proud of the work we've accomplished in the past decade with our diverse network of partners and friends around the globe. Throughout the year, we'll be sharing stories from some of these community members on this special anniversary page — a look back at the work we've done together, and a look forward to the many tasks ahead. We encourage you to share your own Public Lab memories with us on social media using the hashtag #PL10.
To support and recognize the incredible work that has been accomplished by the community, please consider making a monthly gift of $10. Your contribution will support the infrastructure, partnerships, and movement building that make community science a valuable tool for those most impacted by environmental pollution.
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