They’re Called Boobs: An Interview with the Real Erin Brockovich

The activist and subject of Steven Soderbergh's Oscar-winning film on the water crisis and the new documentary Last Call at the Oasis.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

This is the sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Academy Award-winning film Erin Brockovich. 12 years later we interviewed the real Brockovich, so this update counts as the sequel, right? Brockovich is an interview subject in the documentary Last Call at the Oasis, a documentary on the water crisis. Didn’t know there was a water crisis? It’s not just pollution like PG&E’s hexavalent chromium pollution, which Brockovich crusaded against and was dramatized by Soderbergh. The new documentary will show you how water is being used up, and how chemicals from prescription drugs get into the water supplies through our household plumbing. Brockovich updated us on the water effort. That bottle you’re drinking could kill you! No, it’s fine, but you can get involved and make a difference. Last Call at the Oasis is now playing.

 

CraveOnline: Something I’ve always wondered since the Steven Soderbergh movie, did you really say the line, “They’re called boobs, Ed?”

Erin Brockovich: Oh absolutely. I said it I think more than once. Ed and I had a great relationship and sometimes it just perplexed me when I thought it was a silly response, “How did you do that?” I just fought back and said, “They’re called boobs, Ed.”

 

So that was real!

Yeah, that was kind of our ongoing relationship. We had a lot of fun together under a lot of stressful circumstances but really, when he asked me something like that, I really was out there working so it was just kind of a flippant comment that I made back. Yes, I did say it.

 

Watching Last Call at the Oasis, I wondered if there’s big picture problem not limited to water. We have great advances like prescription drugs for example, but nobody thinks of possible consequences like “Hey, maybe they’re expelled from our systems and run off into the water.” Is it more of a big picture problem than even specifically water?

Oh my gosh, yes. From what I’m seeing and the work that I’m doing on creating what we call the People’s Reporting which Google is going to be building and powering for us, the broader sense is that the lack of water and pollution of water, we’re clearly seeing what could be a missed disease process potentially in missed clusters and a health crisis that could be coming because of it. So in a broader sense for me, obviously water is life sustaining. Without it there is no us and we all know that. In a broader sense, the irony in all of this is the single most necessary element for life to exist in fact is killing everything, from our ecosystems to potentially our food supply if we’re poisoning fish and the foods that we eat. That is the broader sense.

 

Right, it’s not to say don’t have technological advances, but when you do that, also think about what else it impacts. It’s not just one development in the moment.

Absolutely and nobody is saying that because this is going on that we want business to stop or the search for the drugs that could make our lives better and help the person with cancer and save their life. Nobody is asking that. I think sometimes the other side here likes to vilify itself and that argument’s just got to be taken off because that is not what people in communities want. They want those drugs if they’re sick. They want business around. That’s how they work. That’s how they feed their children. But they don’t want to be poisoned either and I think that we need to begin to get off this argument, stop politicizing water. This isn’t a republican or a democrat issue. This is a human issue and we need to get together the institution with the people and our agencies to collectively find the solution and deal with the water crisis that is impending.

 

With companies that actually tamper with water, that sounds like Bond villain stuff. What is the mentality that makes them think no one will notice?

I think the bottom line is cost factor and maybe they know but if they can run it out, they think it’s going to cost them less in the end and nothing can be further from the truth. In the end it will cost a bitter health care crisis. I’m not always sure why their mentality is that way but I think that they need to stop vilifying themselves and that the institutions need to reconnect with the people because I think they are very disconnected. Doesn’t have to be this way. This isn’t the way we want it. Companies could step up to the plate time and time again and help out by cleaning up a groundwater system that’s contaminated, being more transparent with the community when they have a problem, respecting that community, getting them out of harm’s way. There are other ways to deal with this problem besides hiding it and hoping that it goes away because it’s not. You cannot put a contaminate in the ground and just think that mother nature whips it up and runs it off somewhere else and we never see it again. We’re back out at Hinkley, CA because PG&E never cleaned up that original contamination that the movie was made about. Now environmental impact reports are showing if that was left to just naturally attenuate and get out of the environment, it could be up to 1000 years. So with businesses, technology, we have different ways to look at how we dispose of waste, they could step up to the plate. They could be cleaning it up. With that they could be creating jobs that will have better transparency, trust and respect with the very community in which they reside. We’ve got to stop all of the finger pointing and just get down to looking at what is the truth. In many instances, agencies have failed, we’ve covered up, we now have a problem, let’s stop the games, let’s look at how great we really are with the technology we have and who we are and begin to address this problem and be solution driven, because we have an opportunity here to fix it and change the course that we’re on.

 

Can customers vote for change with their dollars? Besides PG&E, where can they find out who is not attentive to the environmental issues?

That’s a good question. A couple coworkers of mine have actually thought about even doing a website where we can have the names and faces of those so we could reach out to them in droves to say, “This has got to stop, let’s find a way to clean it up.” Just by getting involved in the line of work that I’m in, going and looking at some of the Superfund sites that exist, you can begin to see companies who are cleaning up and who aren’t. But without putting everybody on the hot seat, we have a problem here. If we could begin to look at water pollution as a human rights violation, and we could begin to look at criminal aspects of this, I think that could be a game changer for many companies who want to not be forthwith and think that they can just hold off in a lawsuit for 10 years and in the meantime people are still being poisoned. For me, if we’re watching a TV show where somebody slowly slips somebody else arsenic over a period of time and they die, that’s murder. We are releasing known contaminates that cause cancer into the environment that people are ingesting, bearing them out over a period of time and we could be potentially on the brink of a health crisis as well.

 

Is the fact that there is going to be an EPA ruling a resolution to the hexavalent chromium story?

Well, I was just reading today a Google alert came out that EPA is finally going to put hexavalent chromium on its watch list. It’s a good step. It’s not too late but it’s really late and it should not be taking 20 to 30 years for us to make recognitions of chemicals that we know are seriously dangerous to our health and welfare so I’m glad to see today that that’s going to be on the watch list. It was a long time coming. It’s about time. I don’t want to say it’s too late but we really need to take a look at some of our agencies and what’s going on internally and why it is we still have up to 30,000 Superfund sites that haven’t been cleaned. Of the billions of dollars that have gone to the agency, where has the money gone and why are the sites not clean? So I think that at agency level we’re going to have to start looking internally as to why that system’s not working. It does present a problem so I’m glad to see that the EPA responded on them. I don’t want to sit here and beat this agency up but I am disappointed and dismayed and I feel let down and I feel failed by this agency. It’s taking too long to respond and I don't know what the tie up is but I think that we need to get down to business in finding out what the problem is and start finding solutions to these problems because you cannot continue to leave all these pollutants in the environment and think that they won’t harm people, because they are.

 

Well, everything in government happens slowly. What can we realistically hope for a speedier change?

I think because of films like Last Call at the Oasis, because of the work that we’ve been doing and because of communities speaking up and speaking out and almost in a sense pushing back and demanding that they want some change, it is helping to get some quicker reactions. I think that we need to find ways to work with companies and to help them come forward, to want to be able to assist as a private sector in cleaning these places up. We’re not doing anything by sitting here thinking that a problem doesn’t exist, walking around the elephant in the room and hoping that someone else is going to clean it up and doing the blame game, it’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s your fault. Stop politicizing water. This isn’t a political issue. This is a human rights issue.

 

Water conservation is an issue but do we have to talk about controlling population growth? Because if there’s 20 billion of us at some point, there won’t be enough water no matter how much we conserve.

You know, that is an excellent question and I have to tell you, I have been out on the lecture circuit heavily for years and a lot of university kids have brought that very question up just most recently about population control. That is a very personal individual choice and it would be hard to make any kind of statement about that, but if we become more aware and we really realize that problems are here and that by having two children versus three, that is an individual’s private choice to make but with better awareness people can begin to make different choices. So overpopulation is something that we should look at and obviously many people are raising that question and it should be open for conversation, but we do have to be, I believe, thoughtful that that is a personal family issue and possibly a difficult one to approach. But I believe that it is because of the absence of truth that people don’t make the right choices. If we could put that awareness out there and they are educated by it and they learn from it, they can begin to make decisions that are right and good and comfortable for that individual but that could also be thoughtful of the future and help them make different choices.

 

Yeah, I don’t know how to have a policy discussion about it but I’m encourage to hear that individuals are thinking about it.

They are. When you asked me, and I’m glad you did because it struck me, I just came off a lecture circuit for the past two weeks and each university I was at, this same question came up.

 

Should I stop buying bottled water?

No. I internationally travel a lot. I certainly don’t want to be on 14 hour flight to Australia and the only option I possibly have is drinking the water on the airplane. I think bottled water in some instances can be good. I don’t want it to become so comfortable that that’s what we think we only have because there are some sources of water that are good to drink. The municipalities in many instances are doing good jobs to deliver safe water for people to drink. So it’s not one question positively yes or no either way. Listen, I drink bottled water but I also drink tap water. I try to, when I can, be at a place and drink tap water before I’ll pick up or purchase bottled water.

 

When you go visit contaminated areas, do you have to bring your own bottled water?

Absolutely and I’ve been in some of those countries. It’s concerning. I was so concerned in one country and I kid you not, I did not drink water, I drank beer and I brushed my teeth in beer. Because I thought that was safer.

 

Can you say which country?

I shouldn’t but I’ve been in a couple of situations over in India and Indonesia where I was extremely concerned. Sometimes in those countries we have to be very careful about water borne diseases or Giardia that we can get from water and it can be pollution and it can also be that it hasn’t been disinfected properly. We could be looking at water borne viruses and disease. That’s concerning as well.

 

Should the tap water in L.A. be okay?

It should be but here and there, I clearly know some water pollution problems. When there’s a surge of a contaminant that comes into a municipal system, they usually act really quickly. The system that concerns me is the 30+ million Americans that are still on well water. You’d be shocked if you knew how many people still were on well water in and around California. Those are the systems that are in the biggest danger because when the aquifer has a huge plume, which is a contamination moving through it, it goes through the wells where people drink. More often than not, those are the very communities that are being exposed to contaminants and we don’t know it. So the ground water and the people on their own private wells are clearly a concern to me. Municipalities when there’s a huge contamination, they catch it pretty quickly. As far as municipal waters are concerned we need to be careful about the chloramines and the over chlorination and the trihalomethanes which are necessary so you don’t get E. colis and bacteria in your water, but we also can’t overdo that process because it can cause problems in the municipal system. We are having more and more communities with problems from the chloramines and the over chlorination of the water supplies.

 

How did you find the process of having your own voice in a documentary versus the dramatization of the movie based on your life?

Both of them came as a fluke. I don't know that I saw them coming or expected them coming. When they went out to make Last Call at the Oasis, one of the producers gave a phone call and said, “Would you like to do an interview about the topic of water?” Of course I would because that’s become my life’s work. I just don’t think I knew that it would turn into the full on documentary which I’m very, very proud of. I think it’s a great wake up call. I don’t want to say I was surprised by it but I didn’t see it coming. Now that it’s here I’m thrilled to be a part of it because people need to know information and in the absence of it they can’t protect themselves and their families. That’s most important to me so I’m thrilled to have been involved in this documentary. I was thrilled to have been a part of Erin Brockovich. It’s kind of weird but they were done right, well meaning, good intentioned that we hope can create more awareness for others so that we can have a safer and better life for every one of us.


Photo Credit: Participant Media