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."

PG&E is quick to point out that the public health goal is not an enforceable standard and that chromium-6 is currently regulated in California under the total chromium standard of 50 parts per billion. Total chromium levels measure not just chromium-6, but also chromium-3, the good kind of chromium that is sometimes used as a nutritional supplement.

Walker, along with about 250 households in the area, receives free bottled water from PG&E even though PG&E says that the well water is safe to drink.

"We're very concerned about protecting the health of the community at Hinkley," said PG&E Senior Vice President Des Bell. "No one in Hinkley is drinking water that doesn't meet the state water quality standard, but we certainly have an environmental groundwater cleanup issue to deal with."

By state law, the California Department of Public Health must set a new water standard as close to the public health goal as economically and technically feasible, but that process may take a number of months or even years. The current standard was set in 1977.

At a water board meeting in June open to the community, PG&E Project Manager Kevin Sullivan explained why PG&E says the cleanup could take another 40 years.

"It's sort of like wringing a sponge to get the last little bit of soap out," Sullivan said. "It takes a little bit to get soap into a sponge. You've got to wring it time and time and time again to get the last bits out."

In a "Nightline" interview, Bell explained why it took nearly a decade after the 1996 settlement for the current remediation efforts to get underway.

"The challenge is that, with this sort of project, there's no playbook in terms of how you approach this sort of remediation effort," Bell said. "We have had to go through an exhaustive process under the oversight of the regulator, to test the different methods."

The clean-up has already been going on so long that Amber Baca, 24, barely remembers the original settlement 15 years ago. But now the mother of two young children says she thinks her family's health problems have been caused by PG&E. Baca says her 4-year-old daughter has nosebleeds, her 5-year-old son gets rashes and has diabetes, and that she herself had a miscarriage and has cysts on her ovaries.

"They're working to clean up the water, but it's too late for us," Baca said. "It's too late for my family and for my son."

While Brockovich is disappointed about the current situation in Hinkley, she says the movie did create attention around issues of contamination. And she says today, people all over the world -- she says by the tens of thousands -- now email her to tell her about what they suspect are water contamination issues in their communities.

"I don't believe that the world is that crazy that they have nothing to better to do with their time than send me emails and tell me these outlandish stories," Brockovich said. "So I've started to plot the communities that have come to me on a map."

Book cover for Erin Brockovich's "Hot Water." Credit: Vanguard Press

She says she has identified 1,700 communities in the U.S. alone where residents are concerned about environmental contamination. These days Brockovich is also busy writing a fiction series based on real cases that she calls "cause novels." But her main cause is still getting to know the people in struggling communities who reach out to her as an environmental folk hero.

"You email Erin, she emails you back," said Barbara Post of Carson, Calif.

Post got in touch with Brockovich when she realized her dream house stood on top what had been a Shell oil reservoir. Shell says it sold the land to a developer in the 1960s who promised to clean it up, but Post and other homeowners in the community say no one, not Shell or the developer, warned them about the tanks.

Post and many of her neighbors claim the buried oil is now bubbling up in their backyards emitting the chemical benzene. While Shell says they are conducting an environmental investigation and so far the levels of benzene do not present an "imminent health or safety risk to the residents," they have warned the community not to disturb the soil. Neighbors are now keeping their children and pets from digging in the yards.

Read the full statement from Shell Oil Co. here.

But Brockovich said the benzene and petroleum products have leaked into the groundwater aquifer.

"I believe that we have a huge problem with the water in America," Brockovich said. "We don't want to make that connection that these chemicals, at varying levels, in our water supplies, over time, is, in fact, related to our disease process. And it concerns me greatly."

Another hotspot on the Brockovich map is Duncan, Okla. Residents contacted her about a contaminant called percholrate that had seeped into their wells. The source? A Halliburton plants that cleaned missile casings during the Cold War. Halliburton told "Nightline" in a statement that they have taken responsibility for the problem and are working with the community to clean it up.

Read the full statement from Halliburton here.

"There's a very fundamental basic value system that I think America was built upon and that's mutual respect, honor, integrity and concern for our environment and the right to clean water," Brockovich said. "And we have moved away from it."

Full Statement from Shell Oil Co. to "Nightline":

Shell's priority is the health and safety of the Carousel community. We remain focused on conducting the environmental investigation of the Carousel neighborhood so that all of the regulatory agencies and most importantly, the residents of the Carousel community have the facts about the environmental conditions of their properties. Thus far, the regulatory agencies including the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, Los Angeles County Public Health Department and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment have indicated that the test results do not show any imminent health or safety risks to the residents of this community.

In addition, Shell is working under the direction and oversight of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to develop a Remedial Action Plan, which will determine the appropriate actions for specific properties in the Carousel neighborhood. If it becomes necessary to relocate residents during this process, Shell will take appropriate steps to minimize the inconvenience and compensate residents for related expenses.

We are taking this very seriously and remain open to answering questions and addressing concerns with the residents in the Carousel community.

Full Statement from Halliburton to "Nightline":

Halliburton has publicly acknowledged our responsibility for contributing perchlorate to groundwater in the area of our former Osage Road site in Duncan and expressed our regret to those affected. Duncan is the birthplace of Halliburton and it has been our community too, since 1919. As such, addressing this issue to ensure that the needs of those affected are met has been an imperative. Because it is the right thing to do, Halliburton has voluntarily taken a number of response actions to protect public health and the environment.

Before Ms. Brokovich's firm was ever involved, Halliburton had publicly disclosed this issue, informed potentially impacted residents, worked with the community and regulators, held a public meeting, and put real solutions in place.

Working closely with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ), we believe we have clearly identified the extent of the contamination. Moving forward, we believe hooking up private well owners to public water supplies is one of the best long-term solutions. To accomplish this, Halliburton is paying to extend several public water lines in the area, and much of that work has already been completed. In the interim, Halliburton has volunteered to supply affected residents with bottled water. To be clear, working with private well owners to identify their concerns is a voluntary effort on our part and was not compelled by state or federal regulatory action or by plaintiffs' lawyers. We have also worked with risk assessment experts to recommend strategies for residents to deal with any contamination safely and effectively. We will continue to work with impacted residents and the community to address any concerns that may arise.

We are actively working with the ODEQ on long-term solutions to address this issue and have entered into ODEQ's Voluntary Cleanup Program. As a result, ODEQ will closely supervise our cleanup of this site.

Halliburton has stated publicly that we will compensate anyone who has suffered adverse health effects or property damage as a result of perchlorate from our site. Additionally, Halliburton has put in place a claims process to facilitate the resolution of residents' claims. We believe that this process will be more timely and effective than litigation in addressing the real needs of impacted residents.

Halliburton would note that Ms. Brokovich's law firm has filed a lawsuit against Halliburton related to this matter, and therefore she has a financial stake in the outcome of that litigation. Although only 28 residences have been identified as having wells with perchlorate in excess of the EPA interim health advisory limit, Ms. Brockovich's firm alone has sued Halliburton for in excess of 100 residents.

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