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Digging for the Truth

With tensions over accuracy in film running high, 'Erin Brockovich' pays attention to real-life detail.

March 12, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

When Erin Brockovich entered his life, Harold Bollema was going through stressful times. He had been forced to leave his 80-acre dairy farm in Hinkley, a rural hamlet near the California desert community of Barstow, where Pacific Gas & Electric Co. operates a pumping station for natural gas that runs along a pipeline from the Texas Panhandle to the San Francisco Bay Area.

He was living in a small apartment with his wife, Jackie, and their kids, waiting to find another plot of land on which to start a new dairy, when Brockovich showed up at the door in the early 1990s with her boss, a curmudgeonly attorney named Ed Masry.

They were there to talk about contamination of the ground water in Hinkley caused by PG&E.

Bollema's dairy sat across the street from the facility, where for years PG&E collected chromium-tainted water used as an anti-corrosive in the pumping plant's cooling towers. The water would be dumped on the desert floor in unlined ponds and leach into the town's water table. The townsfolk drank the water, inhaled its vapors when taking hot showers and watched their children run through the chromium-laced sprinkler water on hot summer days.

Bollema thought something was odd when two pregnant women living nearby suddenly suffered miscarriages.

"If it was a fluke, I don't know," the dairyman recalled, "but the doctor said, 'Maybe you should test the water.' It seemed like everything just mushroomed out. PG&E kicked me off the dairy and took the lease over. It takes about a year for my business to be relocated. I had to sell my cows and move to another place. I was living in a little apartment when [Brockovich and Masry] just came driving up and said, 'We are looking for you.'

"I was out of business six months because of what PG&E did to us," he added. "They bought the dairy and took the lease out from under me and told me I only had so much time to get off the property."

Today, Bollema operates a new dairy in Ontario, but he says he wouldn't wish those earlier times on anyone.

"It wasn't fun," he said. "You are just starting a new family and find that water might be the worst thing you drink in your whole life. You know what I'm saying?" Looking back, he added: "If it wasn't for Ed, I think we would have all been screwed over."

It was Brockovich who, while working as a file clerk in Masry's law office, stumbled upon Hinkley and its toxic water. By 1992, she was meeting with residents and, eventually, brought in Masry to talk to small groups of residents and then address a town meeting. Through it all, Brockovich was the key liaison between the townsfolk and the lawyers.

In 1993, a lawsuit on behalf of 650 plaintiffs was filed against PG&E charging that the chromium pollution was responsible for a host of ailments, from various types of cancer to severe digestive disorders. Three years later, after arbitrators awarded $130.5 million in the first 39 cases, PG&E decided to settle for a whopping $333 million.

The utility had argued that in any population of 650, you were going to find these kinds of problems. Still, PG&E felt that settling the case would resolve what might be a protracted and costly legal battle.

It is this case--Anderson vs. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., No. BCV00300--that forms the backdrop for the new Universal Pictures-Columbia Pictures film "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts in the title role and Albert Finney as Masry.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Susannah Grant, the film tells the behind-the-scenes story of how the real-life Brockovich, a twice-divorced mother of three, used her driving sense of justice, her innate smarts and some saucy sex appeal to take on a $21-billion corporation--and win. Produced by Jersey Films, the movie is scheduled to be released nationwide Friday.

Her name is now trumpeted in TV commercials and emblazoned on billboards across America: ERIN BROCKOVICH. But behind the Hollywood hype is a compelling real-life legal drama involving one of the world's largest utilities.

"It was a lot of long hours, a lot of work and a lot of reading," Brockovich said of the investigation she began nearly a decade ago. "But it was the best education I ever had." The real story, she said, was "what happened to these people and this case."

The film, she noted, is "very accurate from the standpoint of how I got to know Ed, how I started working on Hinkley and how I got into the water board." But, she noted, it is "surreal" to watch Roberts portray her on the big screen.

The film comes amid a firestorm of controversy over the creative license Hollywood takes when depicting actual events. A flurry of finger-pointing, for example, engulfed such recent films "The Hurricane," "The Insider" and "Boys Don't Cry" as well as the 1998 legal drama "A Civil Action."

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