Erin Brockovich: Environmental Protection and Citizen Action

Sep 12, 2017 by Contributing Writer on The Nickelodeon Blog

In advance of the Nickelodeon Theatre’s September 14 presentation of “Environmental Protection and Citizen Action” featuring a screening of Erin Brockovich, the kick-off event in the Nickelodeon Theatre’s series “JURISCINEMA: The Law on Screen” series, panelist and environmental attorney Kathleen McDaniel writes about the relationship between the film and current environmental crises.

“The effects of environmental contamination can be devastating, whether that contamination is undetected for decades or exposed in moments by a natural disaster.

For example the contamination related to a cancer cluster in Hinkley, California, began many decades before the 1990s investigation and lawsuit chronicled in the movie Erin Brockovich. Instead the story can be traced back to the  the 1950s and 60s when the power company PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric Company) dumped wastewater contaminated with hexavalent chromium into unlined ponds. Toxic Chromium 6 was being used to prevent rusting and when stored in the unlined receptacles quickly entered the local groundwater. Residents complained of changes to local well water and illness for over 20 years before PG&E reported the contamination to the local water board in 1987. By the time Brockovich and supervisor Edward L. Masry began their investigation in 1993, Hinkley residents were afflicted with numerous types of cancers. Through dogged perseverance (and in the film a little narrative movie magic) Erin Brockovich discovered that PG&E knew the chromium had migrated from its ponds into Hinkley’s groundwater, that they had intentionally misled the residents about the contamination and its health effects and evidence to corroborate both of these claims. PG&E paid over $300 million to settle the direct-action lawsuits, but the legal struggles over the still spreading contamination and its devastating effects continues to this day.

The environmental and human devastation chronicled in Erin Brockovich resulted from the slow but steady movement of pollution through the soil and groundwater. But natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires can expose and spread contaminants in just moments. While it might seem the most extreme such “acts of God” exceed our ability to plan and protect, that is not necessarily the case.

Just this month, Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston and Hurricane Irma through the Caribbean and Florida. In its wake, Harvey left a series of fires and explosions at the Arkema chemical plant, which manufactured organic peroxides for the creation of plastics. A city shaped by a combination of housing segregation and deregulation, Houston hosts a combination of plants and refineries, often located adjacent to residential communities. Almost 40 inches of rain fell on the Arkema Chemical plant causing the main power and backup generators to fail. Without refrigeration, the organic peroxides caught fire. Residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant were evacuated, but first responders stayed in place to secure the area. Many of those first responders have now filed a lawsuit alleging that they were exposed to fumes that sickened them. The lawsuit alleges that Arkema failed to take proper precautions to keep the chemicals refrigerated and then misrepresented the toxic nature of the chemicals inside the plant.

In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused a series of explosions and releases at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  Inundation from the tsunami destroyed the generators that powered the pumps necessary to cool the reactors. This caused nuclear meltdowns, explosions, and the release of radioactive material. A Japanese investigative committee found that the accident was foreseeable and that the power company had failed to develop and meet basic safety requirements for protecting the surrounding areas.

This hurricane season, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Mexico have all endured the impacts of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Katia and in some instances the release of environmental contaminants because of these storms, heavy rains and winds is already known. One of the lessons to be learned from Arkema and Fukushima, and illustrated in Erin Brockovich, is that individuals can work to make themselves aware of the potential sources for environmental contamination in their own neighborhoods, whether the risk arises from long-term or natural disaster-related release. Much information is publicly available, but it is not always easy to find or obtain.

Join us at the screening of Erin Brockovich on September 14, and stay for the talk-back session. Bob Guild will join me to discuss our experiences with environmental litigation and how to identify and combat causes  of pollution in your own neighborhood so that you can protect yourself and your community for the future.” – Kathleen McDaniel 

Kathleen McDaniel is an attorney at Burnette Shutt & McDaniel, her practice focuses on environmental law. Through her environmental law work, Kathleen has helped clients with wetlands permitting and mining issues, as well as solid waste and hazardous waste disposal issues. In 2012, she received the Silver Compleat Lawyer Award from the University of South Carolina School of Law Alumni Association and the Civic Star Award from the Richland County Bar.