Erin Brockovich: The Real Toxic Avenger

Take Pretty Woman, stick her in Pursuit of Happyness then set the scene to Hinkley, California. We have a sexy, sharp tongued, sharp-witted woman with an iron sense of conviction and a mission. She’s a single mother of three and God help the sad soul who gets in her way. This is an example where the silver screen exploded awareness on a very real and very present problem, and the story of real-person Erin Brockovich was immortalized behind the cinematic lens.

The notorious case happened in 1996, but the waste from chemicals used to keep the cooling towers at a compressor station from corroding were dumped into unlined ponds even as early as the 50s. (San Francisco Chronical, SFGate: Erin Brockovich doggedly pushed to get this scandal out, forming personal relationships with the citizens of Hinkley, making it a personal vendetta to compensate the town’s people for the medical issues and hardships that they never should have had. It’s a pretty solid movie, showcasing the David and Goliath truth of a woman who fought a steep battle. Of course, there’s truth, and then there’s movie magic. With hard work, the record $333 million settlement really was awarded to the town of Hinkley, but it didn’t quite reach the citizens the way the movie alludes to. Kathleen Sharp’s article from April 2000, posted on offers a critical account of what happened after the case.

Fable or fact, in reality, PG&E’s leak of toxic waste into the groundwater system is still leaking. According to a Southern California Public Radio report made on March 16th of this year:

PG&E has already famously paid $333 million dollars to end a lawsuit brought by Hinkley residents about 15 years ago, when toxic chromium the utility used on equipment seeped into the water table. But now, monitoring has revealed that the pollution plume had spread, according to Lauri Kemper of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

For years after the settlement, Pacific Gas & Electric did what they could to contain the water and repair the damage they’d done, but the contaminated water has leaked deeper and deeper through Hinkley, moving past the boundary where PG&E promised to keep it behind. The local news page on posted an article in November voicing the complaints of residents trying to leave the area but who cannot sell their homes. House values have depreciated drastically but mortgages stay high, and, honestly, who wants to buy a house with a notoriously toxic water supply? It’s a common theme and it’s sad—Katrina, the Gulf, the Earthquakes in Chile and Japan—The media fixates on an issue, people grow concerned, the news gets old, and people forget that it’s still a problem. Resources and help die down, but the need still painfully exists. Twenty years later and Erin Brockovich’s story starts all over again.

Happy December, everyone. Next week we continue in the spirit of the up and coming Apocalypse, and I bring to you: 2012!



Carisse Ramos, Guest blogger: “Carisse Ramos is a graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a degree in Visual and Critical Studies. Besides blogging about geekery and thoughtful thinking, Carisse now works as a freelance writer, editor and visual artist in Chicago. Her writing focuses on using pop culture trends as a vehicle to facilitate productive dialogues.”

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