Over a year ago — nine months after the city of Flint, Michigan, began sourcing its water from a polluted local river, and 10 months before the national media began paying any attention to the crisis unfolding there — Erin Brockovich was sounding alarm bells.
“Dangerous Undrinkable Drinking Water,” Brockovich wrote on Facebook in January 2015. “Everyone is responsible from the top down: USEPA, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the State of Michigan and the local officials.”
Brockovich is famous for her fight in the 1990s to hold Pacific Gas & Electric accountable for contaminating the groundwater in the town of Hinkley, California. The company was eventually forced to settle the direct-action lawsuit she brought against it for $333 million — at the time, the largest award for a suit of its kind. Julia Roberts famously portrayed Brockovich in the 2000 film about the suit.
Brockovich’s early 2015 Facebook post turned out to be prophetic. Several months later, scientists from Virginia Tech confirmed that dangerously high levels of lead had been found in more than 40 percent of residents’ homes, and some time after that officials admitted they’d stopped essential water treatments — the kind would keep from lead and copper from leaching into the water — after switching water sources.
Within the year, the EPA’s regional administrator, the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and MDEQ’s spokesman had all resigned in connection with the crisis. Gov. Rick Snyder publicly apologized and promised to do everything he could to fix the situation.
So, how did Brockovich — who lives in Southern California, 2,300 miles from Flint — know there was a problem before local and state officials did? Because the people of Flint told her.
“Whenever there is a water contamination [problem], because of the film Erin Brockovich, people just think: Erin Brockovich,” she tells Rolling Stone. She has a website with a contact form that routes inquiries to her email address, so whenever a flurry of emails from one city show up in her inbox, she knows there may a problem.
When Flint residents started writing her more than year ago, Brockovich was out of the country, but she dispatched water-quality expert Bob Bowcock to test the water in the city.
Bowcock, a former water-utility manager, recognized immediately that there was too much chlorine in Flint’s water supply — and he told the local newspaper that such a high level of the chemical was undoubtedly responsible for the rashes city residents had begun complaining about.
On February 17, after touring the city’s water-treatment plant and examining documents related to the switch, Bowcock sent a letter to Mayor Dayne Walling and the Flint City Council containing 16 recommendations for addressing Flint’s water issues.
“It was about the corrosiveness of the river, it was about the appropriate ways to treat it,” says Brockovich.
And “it was ignored,” she says.
“It’s very frustrating for us. It’s very frustrating for the people of Flint. It’s very frustrating for every community that we’re dealing with throughout the United States,” Brockovich says. “Flint is the tip of the iceberg; this is a national crisis.”
She says the same dynamics at play in Flint are creating parallel situations in cities around the country: Cash-strapped municipalities trying to cut costs are taking short-cuts when it comes to the water supply. “It boils down to money,” she says.
One of the biggest problems Brockovich has noticed is a dramatic increase in the use of less-expensive chloramines by water utilities around the U.S. High levels of chloramines have been shown to cause low birth rates, among other adverse health impacts. “We should pay more upfront to protect health and welfare,” Brockovich says.
She says damage is already being done in cities around the country, rattling off a list of cities where problems are cropping up: Stockton, California; Sebring, Ohio; Tyler, Texas.
Brockovich predicts there are many more Flints to come.
“We’ve [seen] this coming for 20 years,” she says. “I feel like Bill Paxton from that scene in the movie Twister, when they say the tornado’s coming, and he’s like, ‘It’s already here!‘ It’s already here.”
Water-contamination problems have been “just popping up, popping up, popping up” around the country, she says. “And the delay has been politics.”