ERIN BROCKOVICH’S LATEST CRUSADE
The celebrated environmental activist is back on the front lines, fighting for clean water across the US
The activist fights for the right to clean water.
Erin Brockovich is sipping coffee in the living room of her Los Angeles–area home when her rhinestone-encased mobile phone jingles to life. She has no idea who could be calling, but she’s got a pretty good hunch why. “Lately,” she says staring down at her phone, “they almost always start out by saying, ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but can I send you a picture of what just came out of my faucet? I know it’s not safe to drink, but can you tell me what’s going on?’ ”
It has been 17 years since the film about Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts, turned the scrappy, no-nonsense legal assistant into a celebrated environmental activist and folk hero. But since news of a water crisis in Flint, Michigan, broke in 2014, she has found herself back in the spotlight, flooded with emails, messages and phone calls from people around the Us—and Australia. (After Flint changed its drinking-water source to the Flint River, an estimated 6,000–12,000 children were exposed to high levels of lead and other contaminants.) “Nine times out of 10,” she says, “it’s a mom who is fearful”—concerned that their tap water has been contaminated and asking for her help. Says Brockovich: “Polluted water has become a national crisis.”
Brockovich first garnered national attention in the mid-1990s after the single mother of three almost single-handedly built a case against the multibillion-dollar power company responsible for polluting the groundwater in Hinkley, California, with hexavalent chromium. The case resulted in the company being ordered to pay $US333 million to affected families, the largest lawsuit judgment in US history. More recently, she has begun working with communities whose lives have been turned upside down after lead and other toxic chemicals were discovered in water supplies.
“We have a handful of towns and cities across the nation where people are being told by the authorities not to drink, bathe or cook with their water,” says Brockovich, 57, who now crisscrosses the country, connecting “scared, outraged” residents with scientists and lawyers. “It boggles the mind that this could be happening in our country. ”
Brockovich, who consults with law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, tries to make sure residents in affected areas know what their options are. “Communities tend to trust me when I come in,” she explains. “They know I’m not going to bullshit them. I can’t tell them what to do, but I can provide information.”
Which is exactly what she did when residents in Flint reached out. “Information is the most important tool we have,” says Melissa Mays, who now suffers constant seizures due to the town’s water. “She was the first to help us.” And last year Brockovich travelled to Hoosick Falls, New York state, where the industrial chemical PFOA, linked with health issues including kidney and testicular cancers, had been discovered in the town’s drinking water in November 2015. “There’s so much anger and fear,” says resident Michele Baker. “But Erin has been our champion and provided us with hope and an avenue for the truth.”
Brockovich has also reached out to residents of the Northern Territory town of Katherine, which is facing its own water crisis. Recent testing has found the toxic chemical PFAS in the town’s drinking water supply. The chemical is found in fire-fighting foam, which was used at a nearby RAAF air base in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “This is not a difficult fix,” Brockovich posted on her Facebook page on Oct. 12, in response to the crisis. “We have removed it successfully from scores of community water systems here in the States. They just need to own up to it and fix it!”
Indeed, Brockovich just wants to see the problems resolved. “Water is supposed to sustain us and make us healthy,” she says. “Not make us sick.”
“Water is the one commodity we all need to survive,” says Brockovich (at home near Los Angeles). “There’s nothing more valuable .”
Julia Roberts as Brockovich in the 2000 biopic.
“It boggles the mind that this is happening”