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The Sunday Conversation: Erin Brockovich lets it flow

The environmental activist sounds off on our water supply.

May 06, 2012|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Environmental activist Erin Brockovich at her home in Agoura Hills.
Environmental activist Erin Brockovich at her home in Agoura Hills. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich is one of the main talking heads of Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu's "Last Call at the Oasis,"a new documentary sounding the alarm about an impending global water shortage from the producers of "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Food, Inc."The film looks at diminishing water sources in Central California's agricultural belt and in Nevada's Lake Mead, which could affect L.A. if trends continue. Brockovich, an Agoura Hills resident who was portrayed by Julia Roberts in a 2000 eponymous biopic, has continued her work on behalf of communities with water pollution as the president of Brockovich Research & Consulting.

In "Last Call at the Oasis," you talk about a water problem in Midland, Texas. What happened there?

Midland, Texas, is kind of another Hinkley, California [whose groundwater contamination was the subject of a lawsuit and the film "Erin Brockovich"]. I got a phone call from a woman who was concerned that their swimming pool was green and that the kids were swimming and waking up with open sores and rashes. And when she sent me a picture, it was all too familiar. And I said, "You know what? That's chrome six [hexavalent chromium]." And so I sent an associate out there the next day, and sure enough, it had some of the highest chrome six readings we'd ever seen in well water.

Immediately we got the community together and a lawsuit arose out of it quickly. But it's frustrating because what's happening now is the state got out there and put filtration systems on the well head. Now it's an EPA site. Nothing is getting done. It's the kind of a scenario we see being played out across America.

Can you talk more about why this is relevant to people outside of Midland?

Because we all need water. Because 30 million Americans or more are still on well water, and most of the groundwater cases that we encounter, people are on well water. Our municipal systems are really good, but we have to look at our misuse of water, our overconsumption of water and the pollution. It should be an issue for everybody — water should not be a political issue; water should be a human rights issue.

Don't most Americans think there's enough water to go around, at least for them?

I think they're complacent. They're just certain that some agency is out there overseeing it, and this isn't going to be a problem. I don't know that Superman really exists. One of the biggest things is, we just don't see it. There's this incredible water system underneath our feet. I think it's because we don't see it that we think it's there [and not gradually disappearing].

In the film, you tell people in Midland that the Environmental Protection Agency gives them a false sense of security and you can't rely on it. What has been your experience with the agency that led you to that conclusion?

Time and time again, going into a community that has a Superfund site that's never been cleaned up, how people are sick. Being involved in Le Roy, N.Y., and seeing that it took agencies 28 years to respond to one of the biggest train derailments of TCE [trichloroethene] in United States history. And here it is 2012, and they knew in 1999, when they finally did respond, that they had to build a soil [vapor] extraction system because the contamination was so bad, and they still haven't done it. Finding that there are 30,000 Superfund sites that haven't been cleaned up, are you kidding me? The EPA is, I don't know, poorly run, mismanaged, broke, doesn't do their job, is an agency that in my opinion and many instances has failed us.

Do you think that's because of industry pressure?

I'm sure it can be, and science gets involved. And this is one reason I'm really happy to be doing the work that I am and creating a People's Reporting Registry that Google is working with me on to power the map.

What is that?

I have communities reporting to me their concern about living around a Superfund site and why 29 kids have cancer. And what I worry about is we don't track people's movements. Because if agencies are broke and they can't test, and people don't know how to test, and the polluter comes in and is the only one that does the testing, then that's the only science we have to rely on.

I'm taking all the information that people are giving me and I now have 3,000 sites on the map, communities we've got to go into and look at: Are they on a Superfund site? Is there undisclosed illegal dumping going on? Is there contaminated water? We can find out pretty quickly and start looking at those numbers and see if we're missing something, because of people's movements [away from the contamination source]. Listen, I deal with hexavalent chromium contamination throughout the world, and the communities are the very people science could be studying to get answers, but yet they don't. They don't do the epidemiological work they need to do to get the answers because they never go in the community.

Do you think Washington might be more responsive during an election year?

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