Erin Brockovich as Spokesperson
The environmental activist is as determined as ever to act as spokesperson for those suffering from environmental contamination, and she was recently at the center of the Flint, Michigan drinking water debacle. Brockovich’s efforts, supported by the power of her own story, arguably helped motivate President Obama’s state of emergency declaration and the mobilization of the National Guard.
You may or may not have seen her eponymously-titled film, but even if you have, her work in Hinkley, California and subsequent efforts are worth revisiting.
Brockovich’s Start: Hinkley
In the 1990s, Brockovich was a single mother and legal assistant at Masry & Vititoe in California’s San Fernando Valley. While organizing pro bono real estate case papers, she first stumbled upon the medical records that would start her on her activist path and lead to her fame.
Through her investigation and with the support of Masry & Vititoe, Brockovich discovered that Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) was responsible for slowly poisoning the drinking water supply of the nearby residents of Hinkley for more than 30 years. In a class action lawsuit against PG&E that Brockovich helmed as lead plaintiff in 1993, she maintained that the utility company knowingly allowed contaminants to leak into the town’s groundwater—most notably hexavalent chromium (chromium VI), recognized as a human carcinogen attributed to causing cancer.
The court ultimately found that the town’s fertility and cancer-related illnesses, among other health complications, were attributable to PG&E’s neglect, and in 1996 ruled in favor of the residents of Hinkley in the largest direct action settlement in U.S. history. PG&E paid damages to more than 600 Hinkley residents, for a total payout of $333 million.
While some residents believe that Brockovich abandoned Hinkley too early, her positive role in bringing the case into the public eye is indisputable. And for her part, Brockovich reports feeling duped by PG&E and the state, and says she feels disgust at the continued pollution problems in Hinkley.
"All the delays, all the stalling, all the shell games are doing nothing but degrading the environment further and jeopardizing the health and welfare of countless people. It makes no sense," Brockovich said
Email Requests and Intervention in Flint
Brockovich didn’t stop with Hinkley, though. The landmark case catapulted her into the national consciousness, and she began receiving thousands of emails every month from as many as 120 countries and territories.
One of those emails came from a community activist in Midland, Texas. Sissy Sathre says that her email to Brockovich in 2009 garnered a response in just 30 minutes. Eventually, Brockovich flew into Midland to address their own chromium VI contamination spill in-person (a spill even more concentrated than seen previously in Hinkley). Within just two weeks of her arrival, state health officials began installing home water purification systems.
Sathre alleges that Brockovich’s impact led to the quick ramp up in response.
Brockovich has since specialized in more than chromium VI spills, however, as is evidenced in her Flint intervention. She took up the mantle as a spokesperson for those suffering in the Michigan town long before Michigan’s state government lifted a finger, helping to stir up a fervor over the lead-contaminated drinking water in January, 2015 via the following Facebook post.
Brockovich later flew to Flint. Her role as a spokesperson in the case is notable, as her activism for Flint preceded the town’s reconnection to Detroit water by several months, and the governor’s declaration of a State of Emergency by nearly a year. (See more: Flint timeline.)
Brockovich’s Ongoing Activism
Following Flint, Brockovich has remained active in speaking out against the contamination of drinking water.
Currently, she operates a map where users the world over can drop “pins” to describe problems in their community related to drinking water, medical negligence, and more. The platform is frequently used in the U.S., where widespread reports of chromium, lead, and arsenic contamination are described, among other contaminant issues.
Brockovich is now on to her next major crusade, one she refers to as possibly becoming “the next Flint.” She’s recently attended a town hall meeting in Stockton, California, claiming that ammonia added to drinking water from the use of chloramines is endangering the populace.
Regardless of how the situation in Stockton shakes out, it’s clear that even after two decades, Brockovich's role as a spokesperson continues to help communities around countries that often struggle to find their voice.
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