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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Real Erin Brokovich

Air Date: Week of

"Erin Brockovich," the new Julia Roberts box office hit, is based on a true story. Roberts plays a legal secretary who uncovers the contamination of a small California town's water supply by a large utility company. Jon Beaupre (BO-prey) reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The poison water saga of the little town of Hinckley, California, is now a movie box office hit for actress Julia Roberts. In "Erin Brokovich," Ms. Roberts portrays a legal secretary who uncovers how the Pacific Gas and Electric Company contaminated the town's water supply. The utility later settled with 650 Hinckley residents for a record $330 million. Jon Beaupre visited Hinckley and reports on the story's legacy.

BEAUPRE: In Hinckley, California, the khaki-colored Mojave Desert has given way to verdant, lush pastures of alfalfa and hay. What has made this land so successful is not only the tenacity of local families, but also a valuable, politicized commodity: water.

(Water sprinklers)

BEAUPRE: When it was discovered that PG&E had fouled the groundwater with an industrial pollutant known as hexavalent chromium in the early 90s, local citizens were up in arms. Denise Gonzalez has lived in Hinckley almost a decade. She believes "Erin Brokovich" the film will make small communities more aware of their vulnerability.

GONZALEZ: There's a lot of dumping and uncaring for people around them, and along things by a lot of the big companies, and I think a lot of people are concerned about that. Now it's kind of brought it out into the open. And maybe some other issues, you know, that other people have talked about over the years, that maybe haven't gotten to the national forefront or even to a state forefront, now maybe will be coming out.

BEAUPRE: The real-life legal secretary Erin Brokovich did the leg work that linked the dirty water to illnesses in the community, a connection that locals hadn't noticed.

BROKOVICH: Think about it. In your own neighborhood you have a bout of rashes or nose bleeds or gastrointestinal problems or a bunch of breast cysts coming and going. You don't go knock on your neighbor's door and ask them if they have the same problem. We tend to be private about stuff like that. So unbeknownst to them, this was going on and they just thought that that was their lot in life, to be sick.

BEAUPRE: In the face of a giant utility like PG&E, it seemed that these people who suffered from a wide range of illnesses would never get help. Brokovich's boss, Ed Masrey, gives considerable credit to San Fernandino County Superior Court Judge Leroy Simmons, who plays himself in the film.

MASREY: [phonetic spelling] He's a no-nonsense type of judge. And none of this documentation ever talked about hexavalent or chromium-6. It talked about chromium, the good chromium, the vitamin supplement. And I think he was really incensed at that, because not only did they poison the people, they told them it was good for them.

BEAUPRE: PG&E realized the tide was turning against them and agreed to a landmark out-of-court settlement. But some experts feel that the deal was won more in the court of public opinion than due to hard science. Dr. Harvey Gonick [phonetic spelling] is a toxicologist at Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He says that only some of the symptoms discovered there, like skin rashes and lung cancer, are typical for this kind of poisoning.

GONICK: [phonetic spelling] As far as I know, no other cancer has been reported to be associated with hexavalent chromium and I think there was somebody with leukemia in that picture. I don't think that that's been reported with hexavalent chromium. There were a number of points that were being stretched well beyond the limits of what is an acceptable scientific relationship.

BEAUPRE: Besides hexavalent chromium and water, the other commodity that drove this case was paper. Blizzards of it. There were hundreds of motions, appeals, depositions, and medical histories. The evidence that ultimately turned the case were records from PG&E's own files. In this scene from the film, Erin Brokovich, played by Julia Roberts, with a baby on her lap, uses some of the papers she has found to better her position with her boss, Ed Masrey, portrayed by Albert Finney.

FINNEY: There, that document you found at the Water Board, the one that says about the bad chromium? You didn't happen to make a copy, did you?

ROBERTS: Of course I did.

FINNEY: Could I have a look at it?

ROBERTS: I want a raise. And benefits, including dental.

FINNEY: Erin, this isn't the way I do business.

ROBERTS: What way is that?

FINNEY: Extortion.

(The baby laughs)

FINNEY: Okay, a five percent raise. We'll talk about benefits later.

BEAUPRE: A spokesman for PG&E says he enjoyed the film as a work of fiction, but declined to comment further on the movie or the case. Whether Hollywood has exaggerated reality or not, the message of the film is one of perseverance and faith. Erin Brokovich recently received a call from a woman in another California community asking for advice on how to handle a big corporate polluter.

BROKOVICH: I told her, I said don't ever stop believing. Keep looking for documents. Keep following your leads. Keep listening to your gut. Sometimes that's the only thing we have to go by, and I believe that. And by gosh, she called me about six months ago, and she'd done exactly what I told her and she turned up something that's going to turn the whole thing around. I'm very proud of her. And I believe in every toxic case or every case you have there is an individual that has that sense of what's right or wrong. And if they just keep with it and follow it and believe it, I think eventually they'll overturn something. And they might get to see some justice.

(Train whistles)

BEAUPRE: This tiny community has gotten its few minutes of fame, which may fade as quickly as the whistle of the train that cuts through town, heading west toward Bakersfield. But their story will stand as an inspiration to others, that sometimes you can take on big polluters and win. For Living on Earth, I'm Jon Beaupre in Hinckley, California.



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