RemTech 2015 – Erin Brokovich Reminds Us Again Why We Do What We Do

RemTech 2015 – Erin Brokovich Reminds Us Again Why We Do What We Do

Last year at the RemTech conference in Banff we were inspired by a presentation by Lois Gibbs who led the Love Canal Homeowners Association to fight for the rights of families affected by toxic waste (that article is here).

This year at RemTech we were treated to a motivating talk by Erin Brockovich (the actual Erin Brockovich, not Julia Roberts). She reminded us of how in 1993, she didn’t accept the claim that chromium found in drinking water was considered safe. She began digging into the case and learned the groundwater in Hinkley, California was contaminated with the carcinogenic form of chromium: hexavalent chromium.

Erin Brockovich

Bruce Tunnicliffe and Mike Gawel of Vertex speak with and meet Erin Brockovich at RemTech 2015.

Brockovich discovered an unexpectedly high cluster of medical conditions, including tumours amongst the residents of the area. The evidence she collected in an attempt to link the elevated chromium levels with the cluster of medical incidents ultimately resulted in a court battle.

The story of the environmental impairment and resulting legal case was brought to the attention of the mainstream public by the film Erin Brockovich released in 2000.

Erin Brockovich movie coverIn the 1950s and 1960s, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California discharged cooling tower wastewater into unlined ponds. The wastewater contained hexavalent chromium, used as an anti-corrosion agent in the machinery of their natural gas compressor station. Hexavalent chromium is now a known carcinogen (since at least 1986).

Unfortunately, some of the hexavalent chromium leached into the underlying groundwater, impacting an area of approximately 5 km2.  In some areas, hexavalent chromium levels in the groundwater were found to be in the thousands of micrograms per litre (µg/L) range. In California, the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for hexavalent chromium in drinking water is now set at 10 µg/L.

By 1996 PG&E settled a class action suit for $333 million – in U.S. history the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit. In 2013, reports show the plume in Hinkley has expanded to an area covering more than 40 km2 and is seeping down into a lower aquifer zone. PG&E remains under orders to stop the expansion and clean up the chromium plume.

It’s insightful to realize Erin Brockovich had no technical training in science or the law. It was her tenacity, her desire to discover the truth, and to fight for those affected, that led to the win. Other settlements relating to hexavalent chromium affecting thousands of people have since followed.

To this day, Erin Brockovich works at her own independent consulting firm, dedicated to helping people who have suffered from environmental contamination and other personal injury claims.

She inspired us describing how she uses “what feels right” to determine whether action is required to help those affected by contamination. The clusters of medical conditions at Hinkley didn’t seem right to her and she investigated further.

We enjoyed Erin’s talk and enjoyed meeting her as well. Considering the growth of public awareness of environmental issues and the tightening of regulations since the mid 1990s, it might be fun to grab some popcorn and revisit this movie.