Erin Brockovich Wants to Know What You’re Drinking

Twenty years after her moment in the Hollywood spotlight, the famed water-safety activist has not slowed down.

Lauren Tamaki

Twenty years ago, Erin Brockovich was released, and the brash, unvarnished legal assistant turned activist at the heart of the film—memorably portrayed by Julia Roberts in micro-miniskirts and vertiginous high heels—had the surreal experience of becoming a household name almost overnight. “Let me be the first to tell you that life takes an interesting turn when your name becomes a verb,” the real Erin Brockovich writes in the introduction to her new book, Superman’s Not Coming. “To ‘Erin Brockovich something’ has become synonymous with investigating and then advocating for a cause without giving up.”

The first case that Erin Brockovich Erin Brockoviched—the subject of the movie—was her 1990s battle with Pacific Gas & Electric. The power company had contaminated the groundwater in the small desert town of Hinkley, California, with chromium‑6, a highly toxic chemical used in industrial processes. In 1991, Brockovich, then a file clerk at the San Fernando Valley law firm Masry & Vititoe, happened upon suspicious medical records while sorting through a box of files for a pro bono real-estate case. She drove out to the Mojave Desert to investigate. The water was green. She saw frogs with two heads. Residents were suffering from nosebleeds, miscarriages, and cancers. She persuaded Ed Masry to take the case, and in 1996 they won a $333 million settlement for 650 plaintiffs, at the time the largest toxic tort settlement in American history. (Brockovich herself received a $2.5 million bonus.)

Brockovich, 60, is magnetic, fast-talking, and very funny, not unlike her character in the movie, a portrayal she calls “about 97 percent accurate.” On the early-May afternoon when we first speak via Zoom, she is in her home office in Agoura Hills, California, a sunny room with shelves full of framed photographs of her now-adult kids. She lives alone (she and her third husband divorced in 2015), save for her three small dogs, one of whom, a Pomeranian named Wiley, is yapping in the background. She tells me she has been working on an ABC drama based on her life, Rebel; she will executive produce and Katey Sagal will star.

Erin Brockovich grossed $256 million worldwide, a success only partly attributable to Julia Roberts’s charismatic performance, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar. The movie made its namesake into a kind of American folk hero, à la Davy Crockett or Mother Jones. (Every time her name floated up on my phone, it was like Annie Oakley had texted me.) Like most folk heroes, her appeal is a populist one. Audiences could see themselves in this struggling, twice-divorced single mom who wasn’t a doctor, a lawyer, or a scientist, and believe that they too might fight injustice. To “Erin Brockovich something,” then, means not only to investigate an issue, but to be a regular person who takes on a corporate giant polluting the environment. The notion feels especially urgent now, as the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency fails to regulate toxic chemicals and industry lobbyists wield undue power.

After the movie’s release, Brockovich, who was already at work on another contaminated-groundwater case—this one in the Latino farming community of Kettleman City, California—was deluged with emails and letters. “I put my finger in the dike,” she tells me, “and I thought I might help stop its flow. I had no idea.” In 2005, she left the law firm to start her own company, Erin Brockovich Consulting, which she runs out of her home; she advises people on environmental-contamination issues, consults with law firms, and is a regular on the keynote-speaker circuit.

She continues to receive thousands of emails every month. “A mother writes me and says, ‘I’m concerned. I live down in Florida. My daughter was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. I have heard reports that we had a solvent chemical in our water. Do you know anything about it?’ ” she says, describing a typical email. The following week, another email from another mother. A few of these, and she searches her inbox for the town’s name: “I’m like, ‘Holy shit. Ten people from that same community have reached out to me.’ This happened to me over and over again.”

Brockovich is dyslexic and has a photographic memory; she prefers to see things laid out visually, so she started plotting the email inquiries on a map. One day, she looked at her map and counted 300 dots scattered around the country. She decided to make her work accessible to more people, so she digitized it and put it up on her website. Here, people can self-report health effects of environmental pollution, and find others reporting the same issue. “I looked at it today and there’s 13,000 dots on it,” Brockovich says. “It’s like, ‘What the fuck? What’s going on?’ ”

IN LATE 2015, the country began asking similar questions as reports of exceedingly high lead levels in the water in Flint, Michigan, began to circulate. In April 2014, an emergency manager had made the disastrous cost-cutting decision to stop supplying Flint with water from the Detroit system and make the Flint River its temporary source while the city built its own pipeline. The Flint River had long been a dumping ground for industry; it also contains significant amounts of bacteria and organic matter, thus requiring high levels of chlorine and ferric chloride to clean it. But Flint had an antiquated system of lead pipes, which the disinfectants corroded, causing lead to leach into the water supply of 95,000 people.

Shortly after the switch, Flint residents—54 percent of whom are Black, and 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line—started complaining about their foul-smelling and discolored water, plus a host of strange new health issues, including rashes, hair loss, and diarrhea. Eventually, they began emailing Brockovich, sending her photos of their brown, yellow, or orange water. She forwarded a few emails to Bob Bowcock, the water-quality expert she works with. Bowcock says that Brockovich has “this ridiculous sixth sense about her” and that “nine times out of 10” her hunches are borne out by his research. In late January 2015, almost a year before President Barack Obama would declare a state of emergency in Flint, Brockovich posted about the “Dangerous Undrinkable Drinking Water” on her public Facebook page.

When a water issue arises, Brockovich and Bowcock usually travel to the city or town in question. “My role is to quarterback all the experts and pull all the science together,” Bowcock says. “Her part is to rally the troops and get the town organized and conduct the town-hall meeting.” But at the time, Brockovich was in Australia for work, so in mid-February, Bowcock got on a plane to Flint himself. There, he found levels of chlorine that exceeded those of a swimming pool. Bowcock drew up a plan for Flint’s mayor, the water municipality, and the Flint city council. “We actually wrote a whole water protocol,” Brockovich says, “and the city told us to fuck off.”

Flint’s issues grew out of a tangle of bureaucratic incompetence, bad decisions, and racism, but the city is hardly unique. A 2017 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that “contaminants that may harm human health” were present in the tap water of every state in the nation—often in poor communities and communities of color, which are targeted as sites for industrial plants and landfills. In 2015, community water systems had more than 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the 1974 law that regulates roughly 100 contaminants. More than 18 million Americans got their drinking water from systems that had violated federal lead regulations, according to a 2016 NRDC report.

Brockovich’s book—at once a master class on water for the layperson and an exhortation to work for improvements in our own communities—takes readers on a tour of struggling locales around the country. At Camp Lejeune, for instance, the Marine Corps base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, residents were exposed via drinking water to numerous contaminants, among them TCE, an industrial solvent that can cause birth defects and childhood cancers. Brockovich writes that so many babies died there in the ’60s and ’70s that a nearby cemetery had a section called “Baby Heaven.”

Reading the book, one acquires a dispiriting sense of why water issues are so widespread and entrenched. The most obvious reason is that you can’t see the majority of chemicals, so unless you have your water tested, you likely won’t know a contaminant is there. But water problems are also fairly technical, requiring a grasp of chemical and legal terms. “Water’s not an easy discussion; it’s not sound bites,” Brockovich says. “It’s a story.” She explains that “no two bodies of water on this planet have the same fingerprint,” which means that each has its own particular problems. Then there are the structural issues. Our country’s infrastructure is antiquated—some water mains are 50 to 100 years old. Of the approximately 40,000 chemicals on the market, less than 1 percent have been tested for human safety. Science is often manipulated by companies that put profit over public health. In sum, industry pollution goes largely unsupervised and laws remain unenforced.

The U.S. also lacks a national disease database where people can report their issues and connect the dots between illness clusters and environmental hazards. In 2013, Brockovich joined Trevor Schaefer, a young man from Idaho who had been diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 13, to testify on Capitol Hill about the importance of documenting and tracking cancer clusters. Three years later, President Obama signed “Trevor’s Law” as part of the newly strengthened Toxic Substances Control Act, but the current administration has failed to implement it. Brockovich hopes her crowdsourced digitized map will act as a de facto disease database. “She’s a pioneer in environmental investigations and with uncovering pollution sources,” Schaefer, now 30, says. “She’s been so successful in exposing it.”

As Brockovich herself often says, her path was not an obvious one. The youngest in a family of four children growing up in Lawrence, Kansas, a university town 45 minutes west of Kansas City, Brockovich was placed in special-education classes for her dyslexia. Her parents—her mother, B. J. O’Neal-Pattee, was an editor of the University of Kansas alumni magazine; her father, Frank Pattee, was a mechanical engineer who worked as a regional manager for the U.S. Department of Transportation—taught her to believe in herself and gave her a solid moral foundation that emphasized honesty and “stick-to-itiveness,” as her mother called it. Those lessons, she says, didn’t sink in until she worked on the Hinkley case.

In 1978, Brockovich graduated from high school and enrolled in Kansas State University. She spent her first semester staying out all night and skipping classes, and when her father saw her report card, he made her drop out. She transferred to Wade College in Dallas, graduated with an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising and interior design, then took a job as a manager at a Kmart store in Los Angeles, but she hated the work and resigned after three months. She dabbled in the world of professional beauty pageants and was crowned Miss Pacific Coast in 1981.

The following year, she met and married her first husband, a house painter, with whom she had her son and her first daughter. Their five-year marriage was volatile, and Brockovich suffered debilitating panic attacks. When her husband got a job in the food industry that moved the family to Reno, Nevada, Brockovich was hired by a brokerage firm there; one of the brokers was a man named Steve Brockovich, who would become her second husband and the father of her younger daughter. That marriage was tumultuous, too—her self-esteem took such a dive that she had to be hospitalized for anorexia—and lasted only a year, leaving her broke, pregnant, and shatteringly lonely. Around that time, Brockovich got in a car accident that herniated two disks in her spine. But the misfortune proved fortuitous. Not long after, she met a biker named Jorge; he introduced her to Jim Vititoe, who represented her in a lawsuit against the other driver. She lost, but she persuaded Vititoe to hire her. The rest is, well, a movie.

Brockovich and I speak for the last time in early June; the country is aflame with protests about police brutality against Black people, and the pandemic shows no signs of abating. When I ask how she is, Brockovich tells me she is deeply sad about the murder of George Floyd. But, as is her way, she sidesteps any concrete discussion of politics. Her dad was a Republican, and her book emphasizes that it was Richard Nixon who started the EPA. Yet she also worked with former Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer on Trevor’s Law, a bipartisan bill, and she has been critical of Trump’s EPA on social media. “I never get into the politics of it. I’ll pull my hair out,” she says. “There’s plenty of blame to go around everywhere.” She believes that water is not a partisan issue but a human right: “It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, the color of your skin, what’s in your bank account.”

If Brockovich does have a discernible politics, it’s her populism, her belief in people, her utter faith that they—we—can take matters into our own hands. “People think when I speak to a community that I’m coming in with an agenda, but my only role is to empower the people,” she writes. In her discussion of Hannibal, Missouri, where local women got ammonia banned as a disinfectant, she includes a quote often attributed to Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Doesn’t she ever get demoralized? After all, Hinkley is almost a ghost town now because the groundwater contamination spread, and California currently has no legal limit for chromium-6. Seven years ago, she says, she did feel burned out—“It’s just too much; it doesn’t stop”—but then she stood in the delivery room and watched as her first granddaughter was born and thought, “What will this world be like for her if I don’t continue to fight? What legacy are we going to leave?” And she felt reinvigorated.

This article appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “The Relentless Erin Brockovich.”