The cel­e­brated en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist is back on the front lines, fight­ing for clean wa­ter across the US

WHO - - News - By Johnny Dodd

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.”

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