Erin Brockovich played the role of star witness Friday as California lawmakers examined evidence strongly suggesting that her old nemesis, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., commandeered a supposedly impartial state scientific panel that downplayed the health risks of the pollutant chromium 6.
The panel's report was one of the factors California cited in 2001 when it announced it was withdrawing a stricter public health goal it had proposed for chromium 6.
Chromium 6 is a known carcinogen when inhaled. But whether it is dangerous in drinking water remains unknown. Some scientists believe that stomach acids render it benign. If the state determined that chromium 6 in drinking water is dangerous, as Brockovich and her allies believe, it would be significant because chromium from aerospace companies and other industrial sites has contaminated groundwater in Los Angeles and many other cities around the state.
The seven-member blue ribbon panel concluded in 2001 there was no evidence suggesting chromium 6 in drinking water causes cancer.
The panel included two former paid experts for PG&E, Brockovich and attorneys later learned. The experts were apparently never required by the California Environmental Protection Agency or the University of California, which oversaw the panel, to declare potential conflicts of interest.
Before the report's release, state officials had proposed a public health goal of limiting chromium 6 in drinking water to no more than 0.2 parts per billion.
Companies that share responsibility for chromium 6 contamination in groundwater, including PG&E and Lockheed Corp., considered that level far too strict.
The state has still not adopted a new standard for chromium 6, though it continues to have a standard for all forms of chromium of 50 parts per billion, which is twice as strict as the federal standard.
At the hearing in Los Angeles, Brockovich, whose battle against PG&E over chromium 6 contamination in the town of Hinkley became the basis for a movie starring Julia Roberts, denounced the scientific panel.
"I am here on behalf of the faceless citizens of California, the laypersons," Brockovich said. The panel was conceived with "noble purpose" but "it became corrupt, skewed and biased" due to undue influence from companies with a financial stake in its conclusions, she said.
PG&E representatives boycotted the hearing. In a statement, the company maintained it did nothing unethical and accused Brockovich and the attorneys of trying to scuttle a study that contradicts their legal claims against the San Francisco-based utility.
"The accusations are totally baseless and without merit," wrote Robert L. Harris, PG&E's vice president of environmental affairs. "Unfortunately, these charges are part of a cynical effort by plaintiffs' attorneys to discredit the state blue ribbon panel."
One of the two former PG&E experts, toxicologist Dennis Paustenbach, once drank water containing chromium 6 and soaked in a Jacuzzi filled with tainted water to bolster his argument that the substance is not dangerous, according to a court deposition.
Paustenbach, who earned more than $300 an hour working as an expert for PG&E, quit before the panel issued its final report when his background sparked criticism.
Nonetheless, the panel's report still relied heavily on his work, lifting entire passages word for word from an earlier report he had helped prepare for his industry clients. That earlier report found no link between ingesting chromium 6 and cancer.
"If being on the payroll, and receiving thousands of dollars, does not constitute a conflict of interest, I don't know what does," state Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena) said.
The head of UCLA's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health resigned from the panel in protest after learning it included the former consultants for the utility.
The professor, John Froines, told lawmakers Friday the conclusions in the panel's final report were too broad and did not represent scientific consensus on the issue.
The Democratic lawmakers holding the hearing said they were also troubled by the presence of so many industry-friendly scientists on the panel and by e-mails showing that a coalition of industry groups had successfully lobbied state officials to exclude certain other scientists.
PG&E representatives called that hypocrisy, saying the plaintiffs' attorneys engaged in their own lobbying effort.