Erin Brockovich and the people's agenda

Erin Brockovich and the people's agenda
© Courtesy Erin Brockovich

Cleaning up the cancer-linked chemicals that contaminate American waterways may hinge upon the grit of small-town mothers, according to the stiletto-strutting single mom whose legal and environmental crusade became a Hollywood blockbuster more than two decades ago.

“They have a child impacted. They feel dismissed. They feel like they’re not listened to and that just revs them up even more, to try to find out what it is you know that you don’t want to tell me,” Erin Brockovich, now 61, told The Hill in a recent interview.

Over the years, that drive has become a verb.

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“The Erin Brockovich verb — ‘I’m going to go Erin Brockovich on you’ — is ‘I’m going to take some action whether you think I’m qualified or not,’ ” she said.

Brockovich, who found herself at the center of a now-infamous water contamination case in 1991, she said she used to hear criticisms that she’s “not a doctor” or “not a lawyer.” And to this day, she believes that she is still “put in a box.”

Brockovich’s rise to household name was unintentional. While working as a legal aid for Ed Masry, in Hinkley, Calif., she came across medical records that led her to discover that hexavalent chromium was contaminating the community’s water supply — as detailed in the film starring an Oscar-winning Julia Roberts.

“I can tell you I thought the green water was odd,” Brockovich said. “I can tell you the two-headed frog that I was looking at was odd. I could tell you, listening to the people and what they were experiencing and that they were sick, in this upper desert town, where you had all the fresh air and sunshine and freedom in the world, was odd.”

PG&E had used chromium-6 to prevent corrosion at a natural gas compressor station, from which wastewater percolated into nearby groundwater. Brockovich’s efforts led to a $333 million settlement, which laid the groundwork for future such resolutions, though she acknowledges it was not a cure-all.

The country still has yet to set a maximum contaminant level for chromium-6 in drinking water, she noted. Brockovich said that California may finally do so this fall, after previous attempts were thwarted by the Superior Court of Sacramento County, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

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She has been instrumental in several fights against PG&E, including a $335 million settlement in Kettleman Hills on chromium-6 and a $565 million settlement after a San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. She has also advocated for the victims of wildfires sparked by PG&E equipment.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2019 — after the deadly 2018 Camp Fire — and settled with survivors for $13.5 billion last year. But because a portion was payable in PG&E stock, some victims are frustrated that they haven’t yet received their share.

Brockovich said PG&E could turn things around by reinvesting profits in aging infrastructure, which could have already reduced “tens of billions of dollars paid out in litigation” while protecting the environment and saving lives.  

Regarding wider infrastructure reforms, including the ongoing congressional debates on spending legislation, she says “we’re in a pretty big mess.”

“The fighting is for either side’s agenda. But what about the agenda and the side of the people, and its environment?” she asked.

“We have aging, antiquated laws that we need to look at, and we also have antiquated politicians,” she continued. “How can you set a good example for unity in this country if you yourself can’t do it up there on the Hill?”

Brockovich expressed hopes that the parties will agree upon “an amount of money that can get the job done” and begin harnessing available technological solutions “to rebuild America,” without prioritizing one side’s policies over the other.

Leaders are always “kicking the can down the line” to the next administration or CEO — rather than taking ownership of such issues themselves, according to Brockovich.  

That irresponsibility, she contended, extends to current efforts to regulate PFAS, the toxic “forever chemicals” contaminating waterways and household products. The Environmental Protection Agency has only set “health advisory levels” for two such compounds, rather than regulate the thousands of types of PFAS.

Brockovich blasted the agency for its “ass-backwards” approach of allowing PFAS discharge without studying them upfront — leading to a situation in which “science is now catching up with our policies.”

Although Brockovich hasn’t seen significant corporate change since the Hinkley settlement, she said she does see a shift in the people. She attributes that shift to moms, like those in Flint, Mich., who fought lead contamination in 2014.

“They’re seeing that there’s really no wizard out there that’s going to come magically fix this,” she said, noting that the first email she typically receives from affected communities is from a mother.

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Brockovich is quick to acknowledge that she, too, has no magic wand. When asked how she balances work with being a mother and grandmother, her immediate response was: “I don’t.”

She credits her successes, however, to her Midwestern upbringing and her engineer father and journalist mother, who encouraged her to embrace her vulnerabilities.

“I get scared. I cry. I allow myself to do that,” Brockovich said. “I’m not afraid to be imperfect — I am. I’m not afraid to tell you I was wrong — I have been.”

Such raw emotions defined how Brockovich spent the early days of the pandemic.

“I was terrified to see my kids and my grandkids,” she said. “I felt very lonely and very scared.”

But she kept co-authoring her newsletter, The Brockovich Report; published a book, “Superman’s Not Coming”; hosted a podcast; and was the inspiration for ABC’s “Rebel,” a legal drama loosely based on her life that was canceled after one season this spring.

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“The book came out during the election, in between the Democratic and the Republican conventions in a pandemic,” she said. “I started from that moment in August, busy with everything going to Zoom. That was another learning curve.”

Rather than following a “set plan,” Brockovich said she takes action by observing nature, which she described as “a perfectly designed system” that humans have mistreated.

“When it’s messed up, we’re messed up,” she said. “When it’s lost, we’re lost.”

Nevertheless, Brockovich said she remains optimistic — convinced that although people lost that connection, they are finding it again and will need to “fix this mess” together.

“Every one of us has a part in getting here, and every one of us is going to have a part in getting us out of here,” Brockovich said.