California Wasteland: Erin Brockovich Still Fighting for Neighbors Over Contaminated Drinking Water

PHOTO: To the residents of Hinkley, Calif., a small speck of a town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, Erin Brockovich, 51, is more than a mythic name. She is the real-life hero.
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The real Erin Brockovich is bold and brassy, much like the character in the movie named for her. She certainly has the sass and the looks to play herself on the big screen, but instead Julia Roberts got the part and the Oscar.

"In the bathroom, this one lady goes, 'Anyone ever tell you look like Erin Brockovich?'" said Brockovich. "I started laughing. I said, 'I am her.' She goes, 'Yeah right. You wish.'"

But to the residents of Hinkley, Calif., a small speck of a town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, Erin Brockovich, 51, is more than a mythic name. She is the real-life hero who led the charge against their neighbor, the giant utility Pacific Gas and Electric, which contaminated the town's water supply in the 1950s and 60s with a chemical called chromium-6. The state of California now recognizes chromium-6 as a carcinogen from ingestion in drinking water.

"She knocked on my door, and there she was with her six-inch heels, and she wanted some samples of the bottom of my pool," said Roberta Walker, describing the first time she met Brockovich in the early 1990s.

"I couldn't believe that this woman came and was going to do this," Walker said. "And I'm like, 'Okay, the nerve, okay go ahead.'"

"Nightline" anchor Cynthia McFadden visited Hinkley in the mid-1990s, reporting on a community whose residents and animals seemed plagued with health problems and on PG&E's cover-up of the water contamination. A few weeks after the piece aired, PG&E settled with Hinkley residents for $333 million in the largest direct action lawsuit in history, though the company has never acknowledged making anyone sick.

Four years later, "Erin Brockovich" the movie was born. It quickly became a hit. In the Hollywood version of the story, the community was vindicated, PG&E learned its lesson and that was the end of the story. But the reality is much more complicated.

"I really thought that there was a victory and that we had made a difference," Brockovich said at an interview at the law office of Girardi Keese in downtown Los Angeles last week. "But I can't sit here and tell you there's been a victory. There hasn't. It hurts deeply."

Brockovich is working with Girardi Keese, one of the law firms that made the original case against PG&E.

It turns out despite the settlement and the lawsuit, Hinkley's water problem never got fixed. In fact, according to the Lahontan Water Board, the area of chromium-6 contamination has grown in recent years. "Nightline" returned to Hinkley in July 2011 and met up with Brockovich, who had tough words for PG&E.

"Ball up, guys. Get out here and finish your job and make it right," Brockovich said.

Consider the case of Roberta Walker, who was the inspiration for Hinkley housewife Donna Jensen in the movie. As part of the settlement, PG&E bought Walker's house and its contaminated well. With the money, she built a new house four miles down the road in Hinkley outside of the original contamination zone. But late last year, there was a cruel twist of fate.

"The plume had moved," Walker said. "It was going northeast. It was heading my direction. And I couldn't believe it."

PG&E testing shows that chromium-6 levels at Walker's well are nearly 2 parts per billion. That is about 90 times the new California public health goal, passed in July, of .02 parts per billion.

"Poor Roberta, how often does lightening strike you twice," Brockovich said. "And that is really what has happened to her."

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