CHARLESTON – A woman who first made a name for herself more than 20 years ago by helping get to the heart of a California water pollution case has turned her focus to West Virginia.
Erin Brockovich said Friday evening that she currently is investigating the water contamination situation going on in Charleston and surrounding areas.
“When things like this happen, we respond accordingly,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “People have contacted us who are concerned, and it’s certainly a scenario that concerns us. I mean, there are 300,000 people without water right now.”
Thursday’s chemical leak from Freedom Industries entered the Elk River and a nearby water treatment plant. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered people in nine counties to not use their West Virginia American Water Company water for anything other than flushing toilets. Businesses and schools closed, bottled water became a commodity and a state of emergency was declared. A handful of civil lawsuits against Freedom and WVAWC were filed Friday.
But Brockovich, an environmental activist and consultant to law firms, said the most pressing issue right now is to get water to those affected.
“Our first concern is the people,” she said. “We would come out to investigate the situation. We’d see what, in fact, happened. How the breech occurred. We’d talk to small businesses, residents, hospitals. But the biggest issue right now is how you’re going to get water to these people.”
In 1993, Brockovich helped build a case against Pacific Gas and Electric in California over the pollution of the water supply in the town of Hinkley. That story became the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts in the title role. Today, Brockovich is president of Brockovich Research & Consulting. She also works as a consultant for the Los Angeles personal injury law firm of Girardi & Keese and the New York firm of Weitz & Luxenberg, which specializes in asbestos and mesothelioma litigation.
“You have to find out what’s going on,” Brockovich said of the first matter of business concerning the Charleston leak. “The emergency now is getting the back-up plan and getting water to these people and businesses.
“Then, we can look at damages. We don’t know any of the answer to this right now. I mean, what didn’t we learn from the BP spill or the Tennessee Valley Authority spill. What have we not learned?
“We have to start looking at the question of, ‘Are we forcing an issue where speed, greed and money are more important than safety?’”
Brockovich said it’s easy to figure out that, in the long run, these types of disasters end up costing “a lot more money than prevention.”
“There are health problems, potential loss of property values, loss of business,” she said. “What’s it going to do to the fish and our food chain? It takes time for these types of chemicals to dissipate.
“But right now, we need to know how long are people going to be without water? What are we going to do right now to get them water?
“When that is all resolved, it’s safe to say law firms are going to come in and look at everything. I saw today that six lawsuits already have been filed. We knew that was going to happen, of course.”