In the movie "Erin Brockovich," which won Julia Roberts an Oscar for her portrayal of the titular single-mom-turned-environmental-activist, the heroine takes on an energy company for poisoning the water in Hinkley, Calif. At the end of the movie, Brockovich brings the company down and saves her town. Real life, though, is rarely so simple.
PBS NewsHour recently went to Hinkley to see how the town was doing 13 years after Hollywood made it famous. Reporter Miles O’Brien spoke to residents who said that the town’s pollution problem was getting worse, not better. “The only true thing about the movie is that [Pacific Gas and Electric] poisoned us,” one local told O’Brien. “We didn’t bring a giant to their knees obviously; we just woke them up — woke up the dragon.”
And here’s a scene from the movie when Brockovich “wakes up the dragon”:
Although the legacy of Brockovich’s work (and the film, and all the publicity) was supposed to be stronger EPA regulation of chromium-6, the substance in the Hinkley water supply, a recent study shows that there’s a lot of work still left to be done.
"EPA scientists evaluated hundreds of studies and concluded that chromium (VI) likely causes cancer in people who drink it," a report by the Center for Public Integrity explains. "The agency in 2011 was on the verge of making its scientists’ findings official — a first step toward forming more stringent clean water rules. But last year it bowed to pressure and announced it was going to wait for new studies being paid for by the chemical industry."
As Smithsonian Magazine puts it: "Regulators are still bogged down in weighing public health concerns with the economic realities of tougher water standards, not to mention navigate through the clout of powerful companies such as the one poisoning wells in Hinkley."
Meanwhile, Brockovich continues her crusade against public health threats, including documenting disease clusters and investigating the mystery illness affecting New York teens last year. As for the town of Hinkley, residents there will continue to wait.
Related story on MNN: Erin Brockovich and 11 other warrior moms