Erin Brockovich on Saving the World

22 Dec, 2011

by Claire Thompson, via Grist.org,

In the decade or so since her life was immortalized in the Oscar-winning Julia Roberts flick, Erin Brockovich, the real Brockovich has continued her environmental crusade. (To refresh your memory: Brockovich is the working mom who, as a file clerk in a California law firm, stumbled upon records that eventually forced Pacific Gas and Electric to pay the largest toxic tort injury settlement in U.S. history, for poisoning the groundwater in the small town of Hinkley, Calif.) She’s used her newfound status as everywoman environmental hero to help other communities kick corporate polluters out of their backyards, but she also found time to travel the lecture circuit and host ABC and Lifetime TV series.

Brockovich has also written a memoir and, this year, serial environmental thrillers starring an activist single mom named AJ Palladino who Brockovich admits is a lot like herself — only AJ is better at speaking her mind: “I love where she’ll roll her eyes, or the little comments that’ll come out of her mouth,” Brockovich says. “I still kind of tend to bite the inside of my lip and not let comments roll out like that.”

Rock Bottom, released earlier this year, chronicled AJ’s fight against mountaintop-removal mining in West Virginia. The sequel, Hot Water, has AJ looking into a controversial nuclear-research facility. Brockovich calls the book a “cause novel.” “It’s something that’s fun to read,” she says, “but when you close the book, you think, ‘Maybe I should become proactive, maybe [these problems are] in my own backyard.’”

You could call Hot Water (written with author CJ Lyons) an environmental thriller — a bit breathless and heavy-handed, but undeniably a page turner, its plot propelled around twists and turns by cliff-hanging chapter closers like: “Half a million dollars … Enough to send David to any college he wanted, to bankroll our company for the next decade, to be able to work on projects that really mattered … All I’d have to do was betray everything I believed in and let myself be bought.”

We caught up with Brockovich to ask about her latest novel and what else she’s been working on.

Q. Why did you decide to focus on nuclear research in this book?

A. There’s still a lot of secrecy behind our nuclear facilities. That’s why we decided to make this one about nuclear.

There [are] some issues, definitely, with nuclear problems in and around the country. I mean, there’s studies out there now about babies that have radioactive material in their teeth. They call it the Tooth Fairy study. Really, that’s what they call it. And we’re just not that aware.

I think we have concerns about nuclear meltdowns, especially after what happened in Japan. We’re not facing a crisis like in [Fukushima], but I think what’s happened is we’ve gotten either complacent or forgotten about nuclear, [about] what could happen if something goes wrong. There are new ways to find and harness our energy; [nuclear] has the potential, if something goes wrong, to be quite dangerous, and something we can’t take back.

I’m hoping that the book will strike a chord in a reader’s mind, so maybe they can become more aware, they can be more outspoken, about how and where we’re going to get our energy from.

Q. What advice do you have for someone who, like you did, makes a discovery of contamination or corporate wrongdoing and isn’t sure what to do with the information?

A. The first thing that person needs to do is just look at the problem, ask some questions, [and] talk to [their] neighbors. A lot of times, we don’t know what [information] we can get. You can go under [the Freedom of Information Act]; it is your business to know what company is in your town and what it’s doing. A lot of times in situations like this, [community members] don’t ask, because someone’s going to say, “You’re not a doctor, you’re not a scientist, you’re just trying to cause problems.” Don’t be deterred by that. A lot of times information is just sitting there that no one knows is there. It happened to me in Hinkley.

I’ve had a woman contact me from Middletown, Ohio. They live around AK Steel. And they’re concerned because they’ve had one or two people that had glioblastomas. Well, she started talking to her neighbors; she started calling old neighbors that had moved away. She found 59 glioblastomas. Fifty-nine! All because she started asking questions. I had [another] woman contact me, and she and her girlfriends — there’s about 30 of them from high school and college that were quite close — they all connected again because of Facebook. But they all had cancer. And we were able to place them back, all of them, to one source that had a landfill.

If you’re not certain where to start, send me an email. I have tens of thousands of people email me a month with different issues, mostly environmental. Let me know where you live, and we can track if there’s a facility near you. I’m in discussions with Google; we’re creating the People’s Reporting Registry, [so people can report] what they think are too many cancers in their area, or if there’s something going on, whether it’s groundwater contamination or soil vapor intrusion; it could even be nuclear. As soon as we get this map up, you’ll be able to check it, and you might be able to start answering your own questions a whole lot quicker.

Click here to read the rest of this article at Grist.org.

About the author