David takes Goliath

In 2000, Erin Brockovich became a household name. That was the year a movie about Brockovich’s fight against California energy giant Pacific Gas & Electric was released to critical acclaim. Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her portrayal of Brockovich, a tenacious law clerk who helped spur a historic settlement against PG&E for contaminating the groundwater around its gas compressor stations in Hinkley, California.

Since then, Erin has continued her efforts to hold major corporations accountable after industrial disasters. She spoke to Brian about how her activism started, what changed after the settlement with PG&E and why the lessons of history are never truly learned.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Brian: One of the most successful films of the 2001 Academy Awards was Erin Brockovich, which brought the story of the fight against corporate negligence and water contamination in California to a worldwide audience. Julie Roberts picked up the Oscar, but the real star was the environmental activist who campaigned against energy giant Pacific Gas and Electric.

Erin: I do remember sitting with Ed in his law library.

Brian: That’s Erin Brockovich, the real Erin Brockovich. The Ed she’s talking about was Ed Masry, her friend, boss, and partner in the landmark lawsuit.

Erin: We get put in a box. I’ve always been trying to break out of that box, because I’m a dyslexic, and Ed when we first began by law was put in a box, and he said, “You know, kid, we’re not going to be able to do this because of a statute of limitations.” And for me, I couldn’t accept that. I said, “Ed, you’ve got to be kidding me that you’re … So what, we’re just going to give up? That you would even say that to me as I’m sitting here in your law library. Let’s look at the all the law books in here. How did these laws happen? Because somebody made a challenge. Somebody went out on a limb to fight for a law, to change a law, create a law. You’re not going to do that, ’cause that’s what I thought lawyers do.” And he went, Ed and I had that kind of relationship, and that was competitive, and he was like, “No, yeah, you’re absolutely right.”

Brian: I got the chance to talk recently with Erin. We chatted about what it’s like trying to hold major corporations accountable, why seeing is believing, and the Post-It notes that help keep Erin motivated day in and day out.

Brian: Welcome to Backstory, Erin.

Erin: Hi Brian.

Brian: You grew up in Kansas, and I’m curious to know what your relationship to the environment was in Kansas when you were growing up.

Erin: Well, I’m so glad you bought that conversation up. I was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, and I’m mixture of both my mom and my dad. My dad was an engineer, and my mom was a journalist, so I guess my snoopy behavior comes from my mom’s side, but my dad actually was an industry man, retired from the United States government, but most of his career ran the pipelines from Texaco.

Brian: Wow.

Erin: And he’s the very one that taught me at a very young age the value of water and land and our correlation and our health to it and the importance of protecting it. So, when I got involved in Hinkley, so much of that developed for me. It was a natural fit.

Brian: I want you to take us back to the moment where you began to suspect that something was unfolding. Take us back to the moment where you were going through these real estate records and discovered something untoward.

Erin: It’s been what? Well, I guess we’re coming up on the 20-year anniversary of the film Erin Brockovich, and it’s really taken me all that time to kind of look back and put together what I was doing. When I first saw the records, I was a single mom, I needed a job. I wanted to do a good job, and when the box came to me, and Ed said, “You know how to open this file?” To be honest with you, I actually didn’t but I wasn’t going to tell him that, and I began to look at the documents. Isn’t that a funny thing? Actually pick something up and read it? There was bar graphs in there from the lab work.

Erin: So the lab work of the kids was done on a chart so you could clearly see the white count, the blood count, the T-cells, all of that listed off on the left, and then a graph of where it should be so I could clearly see, wow, wow, these are way off the chart. And as a single mom and adoring my children, I was like, I just think that’s odd. If this were me, I’d be asking, why is my child’s hemoglobin so high? Or why is my white count so low? I can clearly see coming from a lab that this isn’t right.

Brian: And can you give us a little context about the file in general? As I understand it, it was primarily real estate records.

Erin: It was, but the medical records were in the real estate file.

Brian: Why?

Erin: ‘Cause Roberta Walker had been saving them, because she didn’t trust what was going on. So she was throwing everything, but what was happening was they were trying to settle a real estate transaction deal and sell the house.

Brian: Right.

Erin: So all the medical records just happened to be in there, and that’s what struck my attention. Was like, oh, what are these medical files doing in here and why are these kids have this strange blood work? In a real estate file?

Brian: Good questions, so what did you end up concluding? What did you decide PG&E was up to?

Erin: Well, I thought it was very strange, so I asked Ed if I could go out to Hinkley and meet Roberta. She was my first contact, and she was the mother that was out there that had reached out to the firm that PG&E was trying to buy her property. So, when I went in and I was talking to Roberta, she brought out the files, and we talked a lot about the animals covered in tumors. These were just weird bizarre stories, and I’m listening with great curiosity. And she brought out again her real estate files. She had copies of everything, ’cause PG&E wanted to buy her house, and it really started off with they weren’t paying the right dollar figure, and they wanted to buy other homes, so they kind of started having these community fairs that PG&E put on.

Brian: Why did they say they wanted to buy the houses? They were getting into the real estate business all of a sudden?

Erin: No, the were bringing in a new road, and they had to buy it. It was really kind of just a big old lie.

Brian: Is that what they said?

Erin: Yeah, that’s what they were telling people.

Brian: Uh-hmm (affirmative).

Erin: So on one of the reports there was a Dr. Anderson, I remember his name, had written down the word CR6. I thought that was weird, and Roberta talked to him about it, and he had told her it was hexavalent chromium. So, there was some records, and I asked Roberta if she’d been out to the water board, and she said she had but there wasn’t anything. So that was my first introduction to going out to the water board, and it was, as I was digging into them, and you’ll see in the film, I went out there and to get in, I started to get reports and was reading stuff that was fascinating me. They knew they had a plume. It had gone a good distance, but there was the word: hexavalent chromium.

Erin: So again, something that started to resinate with me, I’m like what are they hiding? And this is a chemical, what is this chemical? And again, my curiosity started asking questions, talking to experts, making phone calls, and learning the danger of it. And then it kind of started to snowball from there. Roberta would tell me about her family’s illnesses. She would tell me about the neighbor who had a dairy farm and all the cows were covered in tumors, and I literally could go over there and see them. Roberta would tell me, here was her swimming pool, and the water was green. And every frog that got in there, they were dead. I used to collect them out of her pool, and to be standing there and looking at two headed frogs, green water, cattle covered with tumors, trees dying, hearing these women’s story, and thinking to myself in Kansas.]

Erin: It was like, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore, ’cause I don’t see this in Kansas, and I remember somebody from PG&E standing there with me, and I cannot remember their name, and it wasn’t a high official, but their like, “Well, you’re not a doctor or scientist, why would you … This is normal.” And I’m like, “Okay. I’m going to tell you something right now as an outsider. Two-headed frogs and green water is not the standard. It’s just not.” And everything began to happen from there.

Brian: Well, you’re going up against one of the largest utilities certain in the world, PG&E. How did it feel to be going up against that kind of gargantuan opponent?

Erin: I don’t even know that I made that association. I was very rooted in with the curiosity, uncovering what was going on. Somebody was telling a lie somewhere. People were sick, animals were dying, and none of it made sense. So, I was going to keep going, and I believe Ed and the lawyers on that side realized who this was, and that they were going to legally give them a run for their money. And I spent a year out there before anything was even filed, gathering all the information and evidence and meeting people. We quickly realized that they had been poisoned, but proving that was going to be a legal challenge.

Erin: One of the first documents that I got into in a paragraph told me the whole story, and when you get into court, you’ve got these dose response ratios, and it’s important that people understand if you have a contamination in your water, it didn’t just show up. You’re looking at a contamination and a lower level of a larger number in time.

Brian: Right.

Erin: And so when I was out in Hinkley, we knew the levels were still high. But I was fascinated with one of the first documents that I read, and it stated that … The report was dated 1992. Pacific, Gas and Electric’s monitoring wells in Hinkley were still registering five PPM. Now I’d already learned that five PPM was declared hazardous waste, and it went onto say that 90% of the chromate had already been removed via domestic and agricultural use, and I’m like, oh. It was ’92, and it’s five PPM and 90%’s been removed, oh my gosh, what was it in the 80s? What was it in the 70s, as time went on.

Erin: And we finally found those documents, and there was subpoena requests and everything, ’cause it just wasn’t sitting around. The first indication of the levels hitting that plume was about 1960, and they were over 20 PPM, ding, ding, ding, that explains so much, and so you have to be able to prove that in a court of law. So for me, really digging for the records became really critical, and getting involved with the employees then. They had been poisoned too. It took a very long time for them to trust me, and that this is something that’s important that is often times missing is establishing that trust.

Brian: How did you do that?

Erin: Coming back, coming back, coming back every single day, taking the phone call, bringing them information, having a conversation.

Brian: To what extent were they worried in a very understandable way that they would lose their jobs?

Erin: The employees?

Brian: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erin: It took them awhile, but once they realized, and they started coming to community meetings. So when they start seeing these documents, and the employees the connection they started to make was, is this why my child is sick? So, there was two employees, and both have now passed, Lily [Melindas 00:50:51] and Chuck [Ebersole 00:50:53], that really came forward. And one way in how they missed it, the hexavalent chromium that was coming into the facility was named Bets 45. So nobody would make the association that Bets 45 was in fact hexavalent chromium, so as they would hear me or they’d be able to see a document, they’d go back, and then they started looking up Bets 45 and found out it was hexavalent chromium. Then they’d call and tell me.

Erin: So, it took a while of just showing up, being there, bringing information, and it was hard for the employees to accept. To have someone that’s a stranger come in and say, “Oh by the way, this person has been hiding information from you and poisoning you and your children for 10 years.” That’s kind of really hard to wrap your mind around. You don’t want to believe that, right?

Brian: Sure.

Erin: And neither did they.

Brian: You’ve mentioned the film, Oscar-winning film, what do you think that film has done to change perceptions of corporate responsibility?

Erin: What I do believe happened is that the film woke people up. It gave us a platform where they woke up, and they could see a human experience that they could relate to. When the film first came out, I was shocked. We couldn’t get into every theater we went to. It was sold out, and so the next day I went, and even in the middle of the day the theater was packed. And I sat in the back of the room, and no one knew who I was, and I listened and I watched their reactions. But on the way out, I was listening to the comments, and they’re like, “Oh, I wonder if that’s just in Hinkley. I wonder how our water is.” They were asking questions, and so it was that platform that I think helped inspire people, empower people, and I really hope that they realized you don’t have to fit this idea or standard of if you don’t have this degree as a doctor or lawyer or scientist, therefore you couldn’t say anything. I think that was a real shakeup moment.

Brian: Right.

Erin: To see an everyday person, unsuspecting, who, a lot of times we all feel that way about ourselves, could actually rise up and push back, and I was so intrigued with what the responses were, and it’s been over this time. Oh my gosh, I can’t tell you how many more Hinkleys we’ve been involved in that continue to go on. I continue to scratch my head. All the issues we’re facing today. It’s like what have we not learned? And I do see a pivotal moment right now where that shift is going to happen, where we are looking at … We could talk about glysophates, you know Roundups, a plethora of other chemicals.

Erin: We could talk about what happened in Flint, Michigan, and lead, and the outbreak of that across this country. Most people don’t know, we’ve got two hundred other sites of lead contamination with levels in some locations higher than Flint. How could that be? I began my work in Hinkley in 1991, that case settled in 1997. I had another case with PG&E, same exact thing, that settled in 2005, and here it is 2019, and it still goes on everywhere, every day.

Brian: You’ve said we’re at a turning point, yet politically I think most objective observers would argue that regulation is being hollowed out in the national government.

Erin: Well, and it is, and because it is, guess what? Everyone is afraid of disruption. I’m not, because it gets us up off the couch. It gets us involved. We poke our heads over there, and we’re like going, wait a minute, why are you rolling back those regulations? I don’t think that’s a good idea, or I know this much. So, the movement is I don’t know if we get comfortable or complacent or we assume that these issues regarding water, lead in water, chromium six, is just being taken care of, or we assume that because of the film Erin Brockovich and there was a big payday that was uncovered and all is good. Oh, that’s not true at all. We’re still out in Hinkley, California. PG&E lied about it again. The entire town is gone again. They bought everything, and so because there’s disruption, there’s a movement happening.

Brian: You’ve mentioned the failure to learn some of the lessons of Hinkley. Since the settlement of the Hinkley case, there have been oil spills, there have been charges that earthquakes relating to fracking have spread around the country. There’s obviously Flint, Michigan. I know you’re not a historian, but help me who is a historian understand why people fail to learn lessons from history.

Erin: Fear. Fear if they speak up. I think of all the employees. They’re going to lose their job. The word whistleblower has such a bad name, and it shouldn’t be, but we’re bullied. We’re told if you say this, you’re going to lose your job. That strikes fear at the heart of everyone. I don’t want to lose my job. Oh my gosh, I want to send my kid to college, how would I pay my mortgage? And it’s terrifying, because we’re working because we want to have a home. We want to feed our children, we want to send them to college. We want to pay for our insurance, and so if somebody pushes on you, and bullies you, I think it’s a really big deal. We become fearful, and if we’re fearful, we shut up.

Erin: When I work with communities, and I’ve seen this often. I ask them, ’cause they’re not going to talk about it, because see they don’t want … We judge, and I remember this feeling as a dyslexic. Just because you say something, you’re different, my mom always taught me, just because you’re different or you say something that isn’t necessarily scientifically or what other astute, wise, doesn’t mean you’re inferior, and I think that we feel that way. So I ask community’s to close their eyes, and I ask them, you’ve been in this community, and we understand we are looking at a chemical in your water, and we’re not going to have the conversation. You don’t want to have the conversation because you’re fearful that you’ll be teased or seen different or the community’s going to collapse, because the company’s going to go away, but I need to know about your health. How any of you have an illness or a disease? And I could have a room of 900 community members, and I tell them to keep your eyes closed but raise your hand.

Brian: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erin: And 80 to 90%’s room’s hands are up, and I say, keep your hands up, open your eyes and take a look around. And that becomes the breakthrough moment. They’re like, oh, I’m not alone. I can say something. I’m not going to be told that I’m silly or crazy or this isn’t related to this or that, and that becomes the shift when they realize that they’re not alone. So I think out of fear of being isolated or name called or judged, labeled, perceived, whatever, they step away.

Brian: We’ve spent a good period of time just now talking about destruction, deception, disease, yet you strike me as an extraordinarily optimistic and even hopeful person. How do you keep feeling hopeful?

Erin: Well, it’s funny you … Now you know why nobody invites me to parties. People, because see you ask me a question, and I’m going to give you an answer, and people everywhere I go will ask me a question about water, and it turns into one of these conversations, and they’re like, oh my gosh, what a downer, don’t bring her again. It is daunting. By nature, I’m optimistic. I’ve just learned, again probably from my upbringing. When … If I hear a negative, I find a positive. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps, keep on going, and so …

Erin: And I use Post-Its, and I use positive notes and affirmations, and when I go south, I want to go north. And I put them on my car. I just constantly, because I feel the negativity in myself, and it’s daunting and it’s draining, and so if I can shift it … I will tell you I felt, I don’t know, five years ago, that deep, this is overwhelming and daunting and negative, and oh my gosh. I never want to be one to give up, but my first grandchild was born, and it completely just reinvigorated me about what I will continue to do and the legacy I’ll leave for a future for them.

Brian: Erin, what is the best Post-It in your car right now?

Erin: It goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and that’s never to get your dobber down it comes from my mom and my dad, and so-

Brian: Would you like to explain to our listening audience what a dobber is?

Erin: Your mood, your mindset, dobber, just don’t get your dobber down.

Brian: That’s environmental advocate and consumer activist Erin Brockovich.

Nathan: So Brian, one of the things about the Erin Brockovich interview that just jumped out immediately was this question of fear and fear among people who don’t exactly know what their recourse is, whether or not they even have leverage over their employer, and that question of industrial accidents being one thing that makes it hard for people to raise a stink at their workplace. I think in some ways opens a conversation about workplace safety and security more generally. There’s industrial accidents, but there’s also post-industrial accidents and problems in workplaces that I’m sure many workers today feel almost no inclination at all to raise hay about.

Brian: Yeah, I think they know that they could easily be fired or certainly ostracized for bringing this up. It should be said that we do have some protections for “whistleblowers” that probably didn’t exist 50 years ago, and certainly didn’t exist a hundred years ago. Nonetheless, it’s human nature to not really trust those mechanisms, and it’s definitely human nature to worry about the woman working next to you and what she’s going to do for a job if the plant closes down. Between the threat of safety issues and companies just moving overseas because they can get cheaper labor combined with a collapse of union membership, workers are not in a very strong position these days, wouldn’t you agree?

Nathan: I would. I would agree. There has been no shortage of important commentary about the demise of labor unions or the weakening of organized labor, and what that has meant for any number of aspects of the middle class or worker representation and voice in politics or what have you. But I think it’s also worth keeping in mind that there are certain aspects of work that have become safer over time. You think about industrial work in the 1890s contrasted with that from the mid-20th century or certainly the later 20th century, and there’s been some marked differences. I mean child labor, for example, is something that is at least not legal anymore as it was in the 1890s, or if you think about the fact that in 1947 for example, some 16,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents and contrast that with a 2017 number that has just over 5000 killed on the job. Now, obviously 5000 is a lot of people, but to have less than a third of what it was even 70 years ago has to be taken as some form of progress.

Brian: Yeah, and there’s a time element here, and I don’t just mean 2017 versus much earlier period, I’m talking about what is a casualty having to do with work?

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian: Today, we are much more sophisticated about understanding the longterm implications of work, whether it’s black lung disease, whether it’s asbestos poisoning, whether it’s exposure to radiation, the job, and I’m guessing in those statistics you rattled off were not including people who die 20 year later or 30 years later.

Nathan: And the other thing I would say too is we are in a moment, sadly, where I don’t think people have it on their, the front of their mind or their consciousness even understand themselves as workers. There were dramatic shifts in the late 20th century where Americans really did begin to see themselves as consumers first even as investors or entrepreneurs, right, the arrival of the mutual fund in the 1980s versus the workplace pension. So all of this I think has changed the conversation to a degree where you have something, like say the Hamlet Fire, that Bryant Simon talks about in 1991. The conditions leading up to that event are deplorable to a profound degree, and yet there’s no public outcry or debate around that. Even today, you have workers in chicken processing plants who are literally wearing diapers on the assembly line because of the restrictions on bathroom breaks, right.

Brian: Wow.

Nathan: So the creation of jobs doesn’t necessarily ensure the quality of those jobs, right. So this is I think another point that we have to think through in terms of how we as a society think about industrial accidents, post-industrial work, the kinds of recourse that people are allowed, and the day-to-day indignities that as you remark, almost go unnoticed in the general statistical treatment of workplace safety.

Brian: And what struck in the piece about the Hamlet Fire is what Bryant Simon calls “the economy of cheap.”

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian: And part of that political economy is cheap government, if you will, or hollowing out government, the absence of regulation. And by the way, one of the reason the state of North Carolina would offer for having a, let’s call it a minimal regulatory infrastructure is that if they over regulate, these companies are just gonna go to another state.

Nathan: Right.

Brian: In the 19th century, this kind of competition between states to attract business was called the race to the bottom. There were a lot of good thing about federalism, but one of its weak points in my opinion is creating these kinds of competitions between states where how can we bend over backwards even more to attract business but not regulate that business?

Nathan: And that of course, the companies have the option if they’re capitalized enough to take their business outside of the borders of the US completely. They can go to a maquiladora, which is one of these kind of low budget manufacturing places in Mexico, or then of course take it to Southeast Asia. Even many of their raw materials are coming from corners of the world that are very poorly regulated and observed, and so there’s always, like you say, this kind of race that is not just from state to state, but a race to the bottom that is absolutely international.

Brian: It’s a great point, Nathan, and you know a lot of people today are comparing the era we live in to the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. Most of the people making that comparisons are talking about income inequality, but another element that I think really is similar is corporate entities out growing the scope of the government agencies regulating them.

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian: In the 19th century, those agencies were local, and sometimes state, and the Gilded Age is when you have the emergence of giant national, sometimes multinational corporations. The solution? We nationalized a lot of that regulation during the progressive era, during the beginning of the 20th century. The modern day equivalent of nationalizing regulation more than 100 years ago would be these kinds of rules and regulations that were build into NAFTA, for instance, or built into GAT, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, that aren’t just about, well, free trade or prohibiting tariffs. They’re also about workplace regulations. They’re also about the amount of environmental protection that multi nationally corporations need to abide by.

Nathan: That’s going to do it for us today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org, or send an email to backstory@virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter @backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger. Special thanks this week to the Johns Hopkins studios in Baltimore.

Announcer 2: Backstory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost’s Office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Announcer 3: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor at history at the Johns Hopkins University. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.