FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT

Erin Brockovich Is Back To Fight in Flint

Two decades after exposing water contamination in a small town, she helped blow the whistle on the disaster in Flint.

01.19.16 5:01 AM ET

Two decades after Erin Brockovich instigated the largest direct-action lawsuit in history, the gutsy mother of three is still fighting for clean water.

Her most recent crusade in Flint, Michigan, reached the national stage last week, prompting President Obama to declare a state of emergency and the state’s governor to activate the National Guard.

In a post on Michigan Live, Brockovich is credited with bringing the controversy to a “fever pitch” early last year—something few other outlets have highlighted.

“EXCUSES… EXCUSES,” read Brockovich’s Jan. 20, 2015 Facebook post about the lead-filled water in Flint. “Now is not the time for the blame game...Detroit has failed and Flint jumped ship. So much for local control... everyone is responsible from the top down.” Shared more than 5,000 times, the post gave much-needed airtime to a fight that Flint’s residents had largely been fighting alone.

In the post’s comments, people across Michigan thank Brockovich—who later flew there to meet them—for spreading the word. It’s a sentiment echoed repeatedly on her Facebook page, where she reports similar cases of water contamination every single day.

For a woman crucified by the media for a drunken boating accident, and attacked by a doctor who claims the original water contamination she found in Hinkley, California, didn’t cause cancer (a theory that the Center for Public Integrity struck down), her day-to-day resilience seems nothing short of triumphant. 

Her acute ability to connect with small-town America, a result of her own upbringing, makes her a unique and powerful voice that—as Flint proves—can incite change. But perhaps larger than Brockovich’s story of rising from an impoverished single mother to a world-renowned environmental activist is the larger issue that’s gotten her there: contaminated water.

The situation in Flint is not an isolated one. Looking at her Facebook, it’s clear that hundreds of thousands of Americans are living with contaminated drinking water, perhaps even millions. According to Brockovich, Flint—while a serious situation—is also merely one of the “hundreds of cities, towns, and community water systems that are failing.”

When authorities confirmed toxic levels of lead in the fish-smelling, urine-colored Flint water, no one was less surprised than Brockovich. “Once again... I beg, plead... cry for the US EPA to get into the Flint drinking water investigation and stop with the denial,” she wrote on Saturday. “Your continued silence has proven deadly.”

It’s a story Brockovich has seen so many times that she created a map where users can pin locations in which they’ve encountered problems. The map can be sorted by categories, like “medical negligence” and “whistleblower," among others. “Change, no matter what it is, starts with you, but sometimes finding the resources for you to enable change can be difficult,” writes Brockovich. “This is what this platform is for.”

Coast to coast, Americans use the map to express concerns that water is making them sick—from lead to arsenic, limestone to chromium. A user in Sandy Valley, Nevada, reports a cluster of cancer outbreaks in her area, while another nearby says a large group of residents have come down with an autoimmune issue.

One mapper in Shelby County, Alabama, says limestone quarries have residents worried. “Our water supply is contaminated though the city denies such ideations,” she says. “I have to replace my coffee pot every six months… as well as my icemaker… There is lime residue in the sinks and the drain under the icemaker on my refrigerator.”

Many of the stories Brockovich shares come from emails she receives—some from people questioning whether their water is safe; others from those who are sure that it isn’t. In response, Brockovich calls out big businesses and attacks city councils with a tenacity that leads her half-a-million followers to declare her a “hero.”

Brockovich’s latest cause, one that she says is on the “fast track to becoming the next Flint” is in Stockton, California. “Congratulations,” she writes to the local government in a post this week. “You’re adding ammonia to your drinking water because you’re too lazy and cheap to remove dirt (organics) from your water supplies...”

It’s one of many cases that Brockovich is fighting for—scenes that she’s seen too many times. Jessica Yu’s documentary about America’s clean drinking water crisis, Last Call at the Oasis, opens on Brockovich calling water the “single most necessary element for any of us to sustain and live and thrive.” Or, as she puts more simply: “Water is everything.”

With the help of the federal government, the situation in Flint will, hopefully, be resolved. But for many in Flint, a solution will come too late. Among the potential long-term effects of lead exposure in children are lowered IQ, decreased attention span, and other neurological problems that may be irreversible.