She’s Erin Brockovich, and thanks to the eponymous, Oscar-winning movie about her legal fight against a power company polluting the water of a small California town, the now 60-year-old activist has become, as she describes it, “a kind of reporting agency for suspected disease clusters and environmental issues around the country.”
But, says Brockovich, “I’m not Superwoman, I’m overwhelmed. There are so many issues out there relating to the chemicals in the water that concern me, and everyone thinks I can come fix it. That’s why I wrote the book; I want to pass the torch to all these communities.”
“The book” she is referring to is Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It, an exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, compendium of the issues surrounding water pollution, the chemicals and politics involved, and what governments both local and national are, or are not, doing about it.
“The [political] system has issues,” says Brockovich, who spoke to The Daily Beast by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “Over decades we didn’t address those issues, and we thought municipalities were taking care of those things, and they were not. Things have to change, and people can get involved, can run for local office. We can’t just be operating on old systems and old policies.”
If nothing else, Superman’s Not Coming uses statistics to make it easy to understand how bad things really are. Like the fact that there are 40,000 chemicals on the market, but only a few hundred are regulated. Or that two-thirds of Americans are drinking water with unsafe levels of chromium-6, the same chemical that was the point of contention in the case that made Brockovich famous. And there’s this: There are over 151,000 water treatment systems in the country, and no two treat water in the same way.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Environmental Protection Agency was created during the Nixon administration, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, and the Safe Water Drinking Act in 1974. But since those halcyon days of environmental activism and legislation, pollution has actually increased, and violations of the law have risen.
“Over the decades there has been an erosion, a rollback, mismanagement, the EPA gets their hands tied and information is concealed,” says Brockovich. “The EPA has been overburdened, there’s a lack of funding, bad policies that don’t apply today. And it takes forever on the science—chemicals come onto the market, get into the system, then there’s a study, and science catches up, and then ‘oops, we have a problem.’”
All this and more is covered in Superman’s Not Coming which, by the way, isn’t exactly a breezy read. It’s the work of a person totally committed to a cause who wants to really lay out why what she’s fighting for is so important. But the book all too often feels like an unwieldy combination of an activist handbook, chemistry text, and Ph.D. thesis. There are numerous acronyms (CWA, CEQ, MCL, OEHHA, etc.) impossible to pronounce chemical names (can you say perflurooctanesulfonic? I can’t), and a surfeit of information—like the eight (count ‘em, eight) pages listing “military contaminants of concern.” It hardly seems like a work that the general public would embrace.
Still, the message is out there, and it’s an important one. Superman’s Not Coming seems especially valuable in its discussion of various municipalities that have had to deal with pollution issues and what they were able to accomplish, if anything. Charleston, West Virginia suffered through a “do not drink” order; Corpus Christi, Texas residents were forced to boil their water; there’s the notorious, and ongoing, Flint, Michigan water crisis; and pollution is still an issue in Hinkley, California, the town Brockovich made famous.
But there are also limited successes. Dryden, New York, banned fracking, because the waste water from the process was polluting the drinking water. And in Poughkeepsie, New York, reports of brown water coming out of the taps, as well as related skin and respiratory issues, caused the water plant administrator to eliminate a chemical called chloramine from the water supply, with positive results. “A good water operator will listen to what the people are reporting,” says Brockovich.
The book is also valuable in its discussion of the ways in which corporations create scientific doubt about the dangers of their products (a tactic first used by the tobacco industry), and do their best to gut, delay, or avoid government regulation. Says Brockovich, “We need to stop spreading the lie that deregulating the government allows for a thriving economy. We have to stop politicizing water.”
Despite all the environmental horrors she has had to deal with, Brockovich remains a fighter, and an optimist. Discussing the fact that the water infrastructure in this country is aging and runs through miles of lead pipe, she nevertheless says, “I think people are afraid that there is not money for a solution, but I think there is. We’re going to have to fix it, or we’re going to flip Third World.”
Twenty years after the film named after her made her famous, Brockovich has seen both sides of national notoriety. She has hosted a TV special, Challenge America With Erin Brockovich, runs her own consulting firm, consults with a New York law firm on personal injury cases involving asbestos, and is a sought-after speaker. There are also all those folks around the world who email her for help with their local pollution issues.
But there’s always a downside to this kind of recognition. “I get overwhelmed like everyone else,” she says. “It’s a crazy ass world. And my brain hurts. I need to disconnect for a moment, take a walk on the beach. What overwhelms me is where have we been for decades? I face that every day, where my brain literally hurts. I’m one person, trying my best to engage others.”