In 2000, Julia Roberts won the Oscar for best actress for portraying a scrappy young lawyer who fought water contamination and corporate greed.
Twenty years later, Erin Brockovich—the real woman who inspired the film—is broadening her battle to water pollution around the world.
Her efforts now center on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals linked to cancer and other health effects.
“I think these chemicals should be studied before they even get into the marketplace, before they’re ever put into the water system or the public is exposed to them over long periods of time,” Brockovich said in a recent interview.
The 60-year-old has been busy this year despite the pandemic, publishing a book titled “Superman’s Not Coming” and working on a forthcoming TV series inspired by her life.
The Kansas native also penned an opinion piece in The Guardian last month blasting President-elect Joe Biden for installing former DuPont consultant Michael McCabe on his EPA transition team.
Brockovich recently spoke on the phone with E&E News from her home in Los Angeles about how the United States has an “ass-backwards system” for regulating toxic chemicals, how communities can organize to fix their water problems and how some people are surprised she doesn’t look like Julia Roberts.
Why did you decide to write that op-ed in The Guardian?
I’ve worked on PFOA, a type of PFAS, in both America and Australia. I’ve seen the devastation it can cause to the water and to people’s health. So I was just really taken aback that anybody like Michael McCabe would be part of the transition team. McCabe worked with DuPont specifically on a communications strategy to make sure they didn’t have to clean up PFOA or follow regulations in Parkersburg, W.Va.
You know, I don’t always talk politics. But I take really seriously the new administration and the work they can do on the environment. I’m not going to just toe a party line when something’s wrong. I really think we’re in a moment where it is our duty and our obligation to speak up and speak out, even in our own party, to say something’s not right and not OK.
What do you make of the Trump administration’s handling of PFAS?
Again, I don’t always speak politically. But this outgoing administration was not strong on environmental issues. And when the science started to come out on PFOA and PFAS, that was in 2016, and we had to deal with [former EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt, who wasn’t going to release those studies.
How has the United States historically dealt with PFOA and PFAS?
If you ask me, it’s an ass-backwards system. For the chemical we’re talking about, reports showed in the 1960s that it was causing liver cancer in rabbits and dogs, and it was a contaminant we needed to keep an eye on. But instead of understanding what this chemical was doing in the environment, they set a guideline of 400 parts per trillion.
Then the EPA did a study and took a very long time to reach the conclusion that they finally reached in 2016, which is that this causes liver disease and thyroid cancer and a plethora of other illnesses. But I think these chemicals should be studied before they even get into the marketplace, before they’re ever put into the water system or the public is exposed to them over long periods of time.
Where were you when the movie “Erin Brockovich” came out in 2000?
I still remember that when it first came out, I was sitting in a movie theater by myself over in a corner. And I was watching people’s reactions and listening to their conversations as they left the theater. People were saying, “Oh, gosh, that’s really going on? I wonder if that’s happening in our water.”
It was great to hear. You know, Erin Brockovich is all of us, and the movie really sent a message that people could believe in themselves and take action themselves.
Did you get recognized in the theater?
Most people actually don’t know what I look like, and they’re shocked when they see me. I can’t tell you how many times people have said, ”You’re Erin Brockovich?” And I’m like, “Were you expecting Julia Roberts?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I think so!” [Laughs]
What did you make of the decision to cast Julia Roberts as you?
I believe the director, Steven Soderbergh, saw that we had similar mannerisms, even though we’re not look-alikes. And Julia Roberts is delightful. She did a fabulous job, in my opinion. I think real passion came from her.
How has your life changed since the movie came out?
It definitely gave me a platform and an amazing opportunity to be out on the lecture circuit. And that’s been so important to me. I grew up as an underdog, but while we may not have a Ph.D. or be part of an elite group, we still matter. We can still speak up.
You know, it’s overwhelming to me that 20 years later, we’re still talking about it. And in some ways, I think there’s more relevance to the film today than there was 20 years ago. The science has advanced. And now the policy needs to catch up.
The film focused on your successful lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over alleged contamination of drinking water. What are your thoughts on PG&E’s handling of wildfires in California today?
PG&E has really been kicking the can down the road. They’ve made more than enough money to have reinvested in their infrastructure, which is very antiquated. But they haven’t done that because they’ve put profits first. And what happened? Their old power lines caused the 2018 Camp Fire. And the $13.5 billion settlement was just handed down for the victims.
You know, I never would’ve thought that 20 years on, I’d still be talking about Pacific Gas and Electric. It’s very disheartening. And I hope that PG&E begins to plan and prepare and work with the communities to follow tree-trimming programs and reinvest in their infrastructure now, before next year gets here and we see another disaster.
How would you summarize your recent book “Superman’s Not Coming”?
Well, I’ve been down on the ground for 30-plus years in communities that have water issues. And there’s this idea that the EPA will come and clean it up, or a lawsuit will happen and help the community get through this.
But you know what? The EPA has already been there and deemed it a Superfund site. And not every lawsuit is won.
So you know what is going to be your form of justice? Bringing back power to the people. And we share in the book that many communities can actually make changes once they organize and get involved with their city council.
What is an example of one community in the book?
The ladies of Hannibal, Mo., had very high lead levels. We worked with them and educated them on why they had the problem. They had old infrastructure, and they were adding ammonia to the system, which causes all the lead to precipitate out and get delivered to your tap.
Well, they got involved with the City Council. One ran for office and won. And they created a referendum and put it out to a vote. The referendum basically said, “Do you want ammonia in your water? Yes or no.” And people overwhelmingly voted “no.”
So they didn’t wait for some state or federal official to come fix it. They got busy doing it themselves. And now they have a law saying they cannot use ammonia in the system anymore, and they have lead-free water. Imagine if every community did that across the board.
What are you up to these days?
I work with a firm called Shine Lawyers on PFOA and PFAS contamination in Australia. I visit towns and communities over there once a year. This chemical is a shit-in-your-mess situation, if you will. I know that’s crude and highly unprofessional and not spoken eloquently. But it’s the best way I know how to say that when this chemical’s in the water, it’s contaminating our food supply.
I’m also working on a new TV series called “Rebel.” It’s inspired by my life, and it’s a legal drama. ABC has ordered 10 episodes that are going to air in 2021. And I think you’re going to find a cast of characters that you might get really invested in.
So I’m really busy these days. But, you know, my work is my life. It really encompasses everything that I love: people and the environment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.