“There are so many buried secrets about our system that are destroying the two things we all need to have in common – our environment and our health. If I can channel people to a law firm that can take on litigation to cease injustice, fight the good fight, and correct a wrong, I will. That’s why I’m working with Weitz & Luxenberg, and that’s why I get out of bed every day.”
An Oscar-winning movie immortalized her fight for hundreds of families injured by contaminated groundwater and, in real life, Erin Brockovich is accompanied by something of her own soundtrack.
It’s the chirps and pings of nearly constant alerts on her computer and phone from people from around the world, telling the environmental and consumer advocate about pollution in their communities.
Since 2009, Ms. Brockovich has worked in association with Weitz & Luxenberg to help people harmed by environmental abuse find justice.
“I’m telling you, every single state in this union has polluted water,” she said. “Why we’re not waking up to it gives me nightmares, but I’m going to continue to pound on it. This is my advocacy side, but at the same time, it feeds into the legal side.”
Ms. Brockovich, who became an international heroine when the movie titled with her name drew rave reviews and delivered the 2000 Academy Award for Best Actress to Julia Roberts, enjoys a comparatively public role with Weitz & Luxenberg. She’s not just a consultant, but a key component of the national firm’s growing efforts in environmental litigation.
Through her celebrity and wide-reaching social media presence, Ms. Brockovich’s websites typically receive between 30,000 and 50,000 unique visitors per month. Many are concerned citizens, seeking answers to difficult legal questions.
Brockovich, Weitz & Luxenberg Seek Justice
Despite longtime success when butting heads with negligent corporations, Ms. Brockovich doesn’t have a formal law degree. That’s where the symbiotic relationship with the staff at Weitz & Luxenberg comes in.
“I trust them,” she said. “There are a lot of potential cases that come in here, all day long. I’ve had other firms come to me, but I don’t want to work with 10 different firms, I want to work with one.”
“It behooves us both to work well together for interests of these people, and Weitz & Luxenberg is equipped to do it.”
She has joined Weitz & Luxenberg attorneys in town hall meetings with people in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and New York who’ve been affected by perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination in their drinking water.
The chemical is an ingredient in firefighting foam and in the production of consumer goods – notably, nonstick cookware coatings. It’s also been associated with releases from airports, military bases, manufacturing, and other industrial sites. In May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a lifetime drinking water Health Advisory (HA) for PFOA. The EPA also said data suggests a “probable” link between PFOA and serious health complications.
Ms. Brockovich and the firm also worked together on the BP Oil Spill in 2010 and with people affected by the Porter Ranch natural gas leak in 2015 and 2016. The massive gas well blowout in Aliso Canyon outside Los Angeles forced 11,000 people from their homes and sickened hundreds. For four months, the lone well spewed methane into the air at rates equal to almost twice the level for the entire Los Angeles region combined.
PG&E Water Pollution Case
In town halls, Ms. Brockovich connects with people in much the same way her Hollywood story connected with audiences. She is a no-nonsense, straight-talking, and self-made success story. The plot from the film sums up her role in one of California’s largest pollution settlements.
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A single mother of three, Ms. Brockovich in 1991 was working as a file clerk at a small law firm in suburban Los Angeles when fate appeared in a manila folder.
While rifling through some files, she discovered a pattern of complaints emanating from a remote area in the Mojave Desert. Based on sweat, moxie, and plenty of shoe leather, she convinced several families in blue-collar Hinkley, California, whose lives had been wrecked by groundwater pollution, to band together in a civil lawsuit.
Eventually, on the screen and in real life, her efforts contributed to Pacific Gas & Electric paying a $333 million settlement to more than 600 affected residents of Hinkley in 1996.
Erin Brockovich Flags Pollution Sites
In 1991, Ms. Brockovich used a wall map and push pins to plot the location of groundwater issues in the PG&E case. The cumulative number of pins she’d require now would leave howitzer-sized holes in the drywall.
These days, she relies on digital maps at her activism website Communityhealthbook.com. These provide a jaw-dropping map of complaints and concerns ordinary citizens have filed about pollution and consumer problems in their communities.
It’s an illustration of her career-defining Hinkley battle all over, with a lot more acreage.
With just a few clicks, much of the digitalized map of North America disappears behind a collage of colored flags.
The flagged points represent reported hot spots, but it looks like the entire country is aflame. She uses the site to track trends, plot pollution plumes, and turn victims into successful plaintiffs by pointing them to experts such as Weitz & Luxenberg.
“Those are stories of black water, brown water, disease, autism, landfills, pollution, products gone bad, pharmaceuticals gone bad,” she said, referring to the map.
Her Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts are flooded with photos of potentially contaminated groundwater sent to her from concerned residents across America. Some people in those pictures appear to hold gallon jugs of gasoline or bathe in motor oil. It’s actually their tap water.
“We cannot rely on the EPA or the FDA,” Ms. Brockovich said, “because frankly, they are not doing their job.”
“There are well-meaning, well-intentioned, very intelligent people within both of those agencies,” she said. “[They] are overburdened, and sometimes they are understaffed. Let’s be honest, they have been neutered, and in many instances, they are broke.”
Pollution Victims Pushing Back
Ms. Brockovich says that while government agencies can only do so much, people harmed by pollution have other means at their disposal to force companies to make good on the damage done.
“When people stand up in numbers, like in Hinkley, they can push back,” she said. “We’ve seen it over and over.”
“But oftentimes, to get that justice, you need the backing, the wherewithal, and expertise of a strong firm that’s been there before,” Ms. Brockovich added. “That’s just the way it is. That’s our system, and it works.”