A true story of a beauty queen to an environment activist Erin Brockovich

Shashi Thakur has written down and shared the excerpts from a few prominent journals, about an environment activist Erin Brockovich and the cause she had fought for, more than two and a half decades ago.
Environment Activist Erin Brockovich

In Hinkley, California, a legal assistant Erin Brokovich disclosed a leading corporation’s dark secret that impacted the health of the residents. With the help of her employer, she had set off to seek justice.

Erin fought against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) regarding its fault for the Hinkley groundwater contamination incident.

How did the water in Hinkley get contaminated?

Between 1952 and 1966, PG&E used hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, to fight corrosion in cooling tower water. The wastewater from the cooling towers was discharged to unlined ponds at the site. Some of the wastewater percolated into the groundwater, resulting in hexavalent chromium pollution.

From 1952 to 1966, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) dumped about 370 million gallons (1,400 million liters) of chromium-tainted wastewater into unlined wastewater spreading ponds around the town of Hinkley, California, located in the Mojave Desert about 120 miles north-northeast of Los Angeles.

What does chromium-6 do to the body?

Even in small amounts, chromium-6 can cause skin burns, pneumonia, complications during childbirth, and stomach cancer. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies chromium-6 as a known carcinogen, there is no federal standard on the maximum amount of chromium-6. 

Chromium-6, the cancer-causing chemical best known for its role in the Erin Brockovich story, has been found at higher-than-recommended levels in the tap water supplying two-thirds of all Americans, according to a report from the Environmental Working Group.

EWG, a nonprofit research organization, analyzed Environmental Protection Agency data on more than 60,000 samples collected at water utilities in all 50 states between 2013 and 2015. They found chromium-6 at levels deemed unsafe by public health officials.

Chromium-6 occurs naturally in the environment, but high quantities are also produced by industrial projects. Pollution can occur when these industrial sites fail to follow proper waste disposal methods, such as with unlined coal ash ponds.

Even in small amounts, chromium-6 can cause skin burns, pneumonia, complications during childbirth and stomach cancer.

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies chromium-6 as a known carcinogen, there is no federal standard on the maximum amount of chromium-6. In 1991, the EPA set regulations for total chromium, but that includes chromium-3, which is a naturally occurring chemical and essential human nutrient.

Then in 2014, California became the first state to put a cover on chromium-6 in drinking water, settling on a value of 10 parts per billion. But public health researchers based in the state wanted a much lower goal of .02 ppb — 1/500th of the state’s mandate.


Is Hinkley still contaminated?

(The source of this information – is Paloma Esquivel, staff writer from Los Angeles Times, April 2015.)

Today (in 2015) there’s little left in Hinkley beyond some scattered homes and acres of alfalfa and other grasses, planted to help clean the contamination.

Hinkley was a small farming community in the 1990s when residents learned that groundwater was polluted with chromium 6, a cancer-causing heavy metal. It had seeped into the water after being dumped into unlined ponds at the utility company’s compressor station in the 1950s and 60s.

Since then, hundreds of residents have left. Property values dropped because of the guilt surrounding the town, and PG&E launched a buyout program.

Roberta Walker, a complainant in the original lawsuit said that at the time of the settlement, residents like her believed the crest of contamination was limited to a well-defined area around the compressor station.

But in 2009, PG&E “let it get away from them and it started migrating toward other properties,” said Lisa Dernbach, a senior engineering geologist specialist with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency overseeing the cleanup.

That resulted in a $3.6-million fine against the company in 2012, she said.

Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman, said what looked like the growth of the crest was actually the result of additional testing in areas that had previously gone unexamined. Dernbach said the migration happened after the utility changed pumping in some extraction wells.

More recently, the contamination crest appears to have shrunk. Kevin Sullivan, director of chromium remediation for PG&E, said a system installed in 2007 to treat the contamination with injections of ethanol has reduced the chromium by 40%.

Starting in 2010, PG&E offered to either provide clean water or buy properties of residents whose wells tested positive for chromium.

Smith said that when the program was announced, there was a high level of anxiety in the community and many residents wanted to sell their properties rather than take the water. The company, he said, wanted to see Hinkley thrive.

Between 2010 and October 2014, when the program was formally discontinued, PG&E purchased about 300 properties, he said. With residents leaving, a school was shut down in 2012. This sellout was followed by the town’s post office and the only market, whose properties were bought in 2014 by PG&E.

As residents left, the cleanup advanced, and technologies enhanced. About 250 acres of alfalfa and other grasses now dot the town where some properties once stood and are now used to help restore chromium 6 into the micronutrient chromium 3.

But despite the progress, many residents still worry about how much chromium 6 will remain in the water. PG&E is required to clean up to the levels at which chromium 6 naturally occurs in the groundwater – a number known as the background level.

A study commissioned by PG&E a few years ago said chromium 6 naturally occurred in Hinkley groundwater at levels of 3.1 parts per billion.

“Anything above 3.1 provided a lot of anxiety to the people in Hinkley,” said Dernbach, of the water control board.

Last year, the state set a safe drinking water standard of 10 parts per billion.

Although levels of chromium 6 nearest to the compressor station – where no residents remain – exceed that by large numbers, PG&E’s testing in domestic wells elsewhere in the community shows chromium 6 levels below 10 parts per billion, most often between 0 and 5, Sullivan said.

Smith, the PG&E spokesman, said the state-designated level has helped ease some residents’ concerns.

But others say they are disturbed that chromium 6 is showing up in their wells. Some say neighbors and family members have suffered ailments they believe were caused by the contamination, leading them to believe that even low chromium levels are dangerous.

The safe drinking water standard adopted by the state – which is hundreds of times greater than a non-enforceable public health goal set by the state Environmental Protection Agency – has been criticized as too high by some environmental groups.

For years, residents questioned whether the study commissioned by PG&E putting the background level at 3.1 parts per billion was even accurate.

John Izbicki, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist, was sought to help, who studied naturally occurring chromium 6 in the Mojave Desert. With pressure from residents, PG&E acknowledged that its earlier study was lacking. It paid for a five-year study led by Izbicki that was expected to conclusively determine the background level.

At a community meeting in 2015, fewer than a dozen residents had gathered in the Hinkley Community Center to hear Izbicki describe his upcoming study.

Izbicki said water samples would be sent to Germany, Nevada, Virginia, Northern California and other places for testing. Some of it would be handled in the same USGS labs that do testing for NASA.

When he was done, the meeting’s facilitator asked longtime resident McHenry Cooke, 81, if he would “trust the data.”

“I haven’t reviewed it all,” he said skeptically.

As the meeting wrapped up, John Turner, who had volunteered to keep the community center open, said he felt optimistic about the town’s future. For years, community meetings had been filled with negativity, he said, but this one was productive.

He hoped PG&E would play a role in helping to rebuild the community so residents can move forward.


All you need to know about Erin Brockovich

Everyone knows the Julia Roberts-starring movie based on the life of beauty pageant winner turned environment activist Erin Brockovich. 

What did Erin Brockovich do?

Erin became a global celebrity after the 2000 film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, about her extraordinary life. In 1993, after enduring a minor injury in a car accident, Erin hired the California-based law firm Masry and Vititoe to represent her. After winning the case, she sought out a job at the firm to help her family, and pay her legal fees. 

Despite having no knowledge in the field, she was hired as a file clerk by the firm. While organizing case files, she discovered medical records that divulged various ailments of the Hinkley occupants. 

Erin was aghast to learn about this and resolved to give justice to the victims. Those records later led to the largest settlement ever paid out in a direct-action lawsuit in US history.

How many signatures Erin Brockovich had obtained?

Fortunately, for Erin, the records were never destroyed. These records proved PG&E headquarters guilty and they required 634 complainant’s signatures. Ed Masry and Erin won the case for the Hinkley inhabitants. It was ordered by a judge that PG&E had to pay the complainants 333 million dollars. 

Brockovich became a household name after she uncovered the water crisis in Hinkley, California. She confronted Pacific Gas & Electric in a multi-million dollar lawsuit that finally inspired a movie.

Environment Activist Erin Brockovich
Julia Roberts as Environment Activist Erin Brockovich

Erin’s continuous investigation found that the Pacific Gas and Electric company had been poisoning the groundwater of the residents of Hinkley, California, for more than 30 years. Out of the $333million settlement the company paid out, Erin herself obtained $2million. Though each of the Hinkley residents received as little as $10,000 from the settlement.

Is PG&E still operating in Hinkley?

PG&E runs a compressor station in Hinkley for its natural-gas transmission pipelines. The gas has to be recompressed about every 350 miles (560 km), and the station uses cooling towers to cool the gas after compression.

What was the strategy for Erin Brockovich, and what kind of lawyer was Ed Masry?

With solid evidence of medical records and signatures from over 600 complainants, Masry, a criminal lawyer, and Erin Brockovich, a self-trained courageous legal assistant, filed a class-action suit in 1993 against the mighty firm, Pacific Gas and Electric Company. 

In 1997, they, joined by two large law firms, won a $333 million settlement on behalf of 648 residents of the Hinkley town. It was the largest ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit at the time. 

After the case, Erin continued to work with Masry’s law firm and went on to take part in several other anti-pollution lawsuits. 


Julia Roberts as Environment Activist Erin Brockovich

-Shashi Thakur

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