Feature

Ecowarrior: Erin Brockovich

G Magazine

Ten years on from the movie that made her name synonymous with community battles against corporations, Brockovich is in Australia setting her sights on some new environmental battles of her own.

Erin Brockovich

Last week Brockovich vowed to take on Orica over their cancer-causing leaks.

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There are two things which aggravate Erin Brockovich and those are “being ignored and being lied to”. Well, at least those are the two things that aggravated Hollywood’s version of Erin Brockovich – the version which actress Julia Roberts won an Oscar for a decade ago. And the real Brokovich is every bit as compassionate, every bit as determined and, when she needs to be, every bit as uncompromising as the on-screen portrayal.

No doubt the hundreds of families Brockovich has supported over the years are thankful there’s nothing Hollywood-like about her, though some at the Californian gas and electricity giant PG&E must wish she had been fictional, rather than a determined legal clerk with two divorces and three kids to her name.

Had she been, PG&E may have been spared the US $650 million plus that it has paid out so far to families who claimed they’d been poisoned by leaks of the likely carcinogen hexavalent chromium into their water supplies.

But the film’s popularity has turned Brokovich’s name into a synonym for any community battling pollution from corporate giants. Every month, she gets between 25,000 and 35,000 inquiries to her personal website from more than 140 countries and territories with “plenty” from Australia. “I’m out here [in Australia] to try and protect your land and water and your animals and your children and your health,’’ she says.

As patron of the new Australian-based Environmental Justice Society (EJS), Brockovich is now part of an investigation into health concerns in eight communities around the country. Among the industries and activities involved in these first eight Australian cases, says Brockovich, are cement manufacturing, pesticide use, bauxite mining and a minerals processing site. “As we get looking into these cases it is sometimes necessary to be here and be on the ground,’’ she says. “We are never going to know until we embed ourselves in these communities and understand what they are going through. That can take time. It took me a full year in Hinkley every single day to get to know that community and see day-in-day-out what is happening with their families.”

“Communities can tell the doctors and the toxicologists a lot. They are the ones drinking poison, breathing poison and having soil gases running under their homes or getting dowsed in pesticides. We need to listen and learn from them. They are desperately trying to tell us a story but often they will not speak up for fear of reprisal.” But the 50-year-old campaigner warns that by the time some pollution cases get to court, the damage has been done. “Please don’t think that a lawsuit is a solution. I’m in a unique position to tell you that litigation is not a win-win. It can’t be the solution as it comes too late and people lose their lives. Before you get to that point there has to be a better solution where communities and governments and industry come together as one and make it right.”

“I do believe that companies can do good and they can be heroes to our communities and they have got to have some morality before money. I do believe that they and communities have to learn to exist together and if I can mediate between a community and a company to do right by both then I’m certainly going to do that.”

“But if a company willfully and intentionally knowingly is harming people, as the company that we dealt with in the film did, then I don’t want to talk to them. Sometimes they can bully and we have to stand up to that.”

“I’m inspired by people that I deal with who are less fortunate and have been exposed to a chemical and have developed a disease and are going through chemotherapy and know that death could be at their door and they have no hair. Yet they manage to wake up each morning with a smile on their face.”

“There’s a very common denominator here between all of us. Nobody wants to eat poison and watch your animals die and your health go down the toilet.”

Brockovich sees Australia as an opportunity at a time when heavy industry is booming. There’s a chance to avoid mistakes which, she argues, has seen the balance of accountability tip too heavily in favour of corporations rather than communities. Australia, she says, is where she feels “spirited”. She is planning to apply for dual citizenship to spend more time here fighting causes.

Brokovich is most certainly a woman who rolls with the punches and is not distracted from her goals. “I’m a single mother and I’ve raised three children on my own,” she says. “I’ve had issues with my kids. I’ve been through divorce. I know what it’s like to be a woman in a still male-dominated world and get knocked around and get back up and say, you know, I like how I dress and who I am.”

“And when that trash talking crusader comes out for a fight, and someone gets their panties in a notch because I drop an F-bomb… sorry but they’re just going to have to deal with that.”

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Just last week, Brockovich vowed to take on Orica over their cancer-causing leaks.