KSJ Tracker March 20, 2013

The Erin Brockovich Update

Map of Chromium-6 in Tap Water/Environmental Working Group

[Ed. note: For more on health claims such as those related to the contamination at Hinkley, see Deborah Blum's "An update to the Erin Brockovich update."]

Some twenty years ago,  young law clerk named Erin Brockovich took on an apparently impossible cause - bringing utility giant PG&E to justice for  poisoning ground water in a small California community (and covering up the danger). Her work on behalf of the residents of Hinkley, California, who were being sickened by a toxic metallic element in the water, led to a $333 million judgement against the company and a court order to clean up the water.

Both her unlikely crusade and her triumph were told in the Oscar-winning eponymously titled movie, released in 2000, in which actress Julia Roberts played Brockovich. This year, though, science journalist Miles O'Brien, in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity (a team including David Heath and Ronnie Green) decided to take a second look at the Brockovich story - investigating both the status of the Hinkley clean up and, on a broader scale, the status of contamination there, and elsewhere, by the element in question, known as chromium-6 or hexavalent chromium.

In a media world in which these kinds of collaborations increasingly support indepth reporting, this is an outstanding example of such work - thoroughly reported, beautifully told, and revealing. O'Brien's report last week, on the PHS News Hour, came in two segments. The first focuses on Hinkley today, where (surprise) the metallic element is still seeping through ground water. It ultimately shows us a community destroyed by a corporation's actions - and inaction.

The second shows us how such corporations are able to infiltrate and undermine the regulatory system. In this particular case, PG&E was able to place industry-friendly scientists on California's environmental protection agency board and, in one case, even paid a scientist to rewrite his result so that the conclusions were more favorable to the corporation.  It's a study in government manipulation that should serve as a cautionary tale to journalists (including myself) not to assume that regulators are always objectively on the side of the average citizen. It's worth noting that CPA's Heath and Green published a report last month (again in collaboration with PBS) titled: EPA Contaminated by Conflict of Interest.

It was followed this month by a report, titled "How Industry Scientists Stalled Action on Carcinogen, " with Heath as lead author.  Taken together, these form a compelling - and damning - portrait of government collusion with industry in avoiding measures that would cost big business and also avoiding efforts to protect the rest of us. And regarding the rest of us, here is a link to the nationwide report on chromium-6 in tap water across the country done by the Environmental Working Group.

It may never be the subject of a movie starring Julia Roberts. But it's a strong reminder that this is not just a story about the lives of people in a little desert community but it's the story of our own lives as well.

 -- Deborah Blum

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