Your Drinking Water Might Be Dirty, Says Environmental Activist Erin Brockovich. Here's How to Tell...
Erin Brockovich has radically changed how we view our water. Her work building a successful lawsuit against PG&E involving contaminated water in Hinkley, California gained her widespread recognition. (Brockovich’s victory against PG&E, with the help of attorney Ed Masry, is the subject of the 2000 Academy Award-winning film Erin Brockovich.)
In the decades since, Brockovich, a renowned public health advocate, environmental activist, author, and educator, has written, lobbied, fought, rallied, challenged, and inspired—all for the environment and our right to clean water. She believes each of us deserves to know what's in our water, our food, our municipal systems, and beyond. At 62, she’s never slowed down, so much so that her name is often used as a verb. “To ‘Erin Brockovich something’ has become synonymous with investigating and then advocating for a cause without giving up,” she writes in her 2020 book Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do about It.
But as steadfast as her conviction is, Brockovich is first to recognize her shortcomings, which makes her environmental advice not only inspiring but accessible. The state of American municipal drinking water is serious and daunting, she tells The Sunday Paper, admitting she sometimes wants to “pull the blankets over” her head in her fight for clean water. Still, the power for change toward cleaner water and a healthier planet starts small, she says.
“At the end of the day, I think every one of us, in some way, has been an environmental offender—myself included,” she says. “But it’s about, here we are and I can do better for the sake of this planet. Imagine if every one of us had that change of thought, had that one change of behavior—and you multiply that times 330 million people in 50 states and countless cities and counties.”
A Conversation with Erin Brockovich
The recent situation in Jackson, Mississippi, which had a boil water advisory for more than a month, is one of many stories where municipal water has been unsafe to drink. Let’s start with where we’re at and what you’re seeing.
I learned a long time ago from my parents, then from my work in Hinkley, and then over the years working on environmental issues: It's all about planning and being prepared. A state Supreme Court Justice asked me a long time ago: What’s the best and the worst thing we can do when it comes to our environmental issues? I said the best thing you can do is plan and be prepared. The worst thing you can do is don't plan and don't be prepared. That’s precisely why we're where we are.
You may think it's a small act to take any action towards the betterment of our water systems, clean water, cleaning up polluted water, and the future of this planet that every one of us calls home. I say this because I have been a part of it: We get comfortable or complacent or we’ve bought another idea that somebody else has taken care of. We’ve had a model that kicks the can down the line. We haven’t reinvested in our infrastructures, in updating our environmental policies, or in being involved in water issues like we should because we thought somebody else would have it covered. And we're coming to find out that they weren't covered, and it's all hitting at once, and oversight can't get to everywhere at once. So my biggest message is for all communities to know this is real. This isn't political. It's everyone's issue.
How can we start to make this right?
There's an incredibly unique opportunity. A great reset, a reboot, if you will, coming out of COVID to see the errors of our ways and to change that. Part of doing that is to change yourself and realize that you can make a difference. You don't have to have a Ph.D. or medical degree or be a politician or a world leader to open your eyes and look around and see that things are changing. You can take action within yourself or your own family or with your neighborhood or at your own city council. If every one of us did that across America, we could get something done. We need to be realistic about our plan and our approach and begin to take the first steps towards that solution to reach an ultimate goal. But if we don't take that first step, we're going to be right back to square one and we're never going to reach that goal. We don't have time to kick the can down the road anymore. We've kicked it as far as it's going to go.
It’s so hard to have conversations about polluted water and about pollution and cancer in children. It's overwhelming. It's so daunting. We live in a world of such bad news that we just don't hear the message anymore. We need to change that message, and that message isn't to try to change the right to change the left, or to blame. Change begins here at home, in your own heart, and your soul. And you don't have to be anything other than a human to fight for what gives us all life and that's this planet.
Water is easy to take for granted when you’re fortunate to have it readily available and clean. You turn on your faucet and there it is. You turn a knob, and it gets hot. But it can be hard for someone to admit they take it for granted. What do you say to this?
I have found the greatest empowerment in owning my mistakes and being able to say I was wrong.
Here in Southern California, The New York Times reached out to municipalities to get a list of water offenders—and I was on the list. The message here is that I can own that. I was not the best at water conservation, and I fight for water all day. It's okay to own that.
My message is: These are the actions that I'm taking to correct that. Oftentimes we don't do that because we're ashamed to say we did something wrong or we think we did something wrong or that we'll be chastised for doing something wrong. I have found empowerment in being able to say ‘I was wrong and I can do better.’ You don't brush it off, you own it and you do better.
You recently wrote in your newsletter The Brockovich Report that there are on average 1500 boil water advisories happening each month across the US. We’re seeing these crises in Flint, most recently in Jackson, and in cities and towns unmentioned in the media. What are the main reasons behind these water issues?
One: We have antiquated structures. When were these installed? One hundred fifty years ago, or further back. To redo our infrastructures in this entire country, like in Jackson, Mississippi, will require the recommissioning of the entire municipality. You're talking hundreds of millions of dollars. Now we have 30 to 40,000 plus municipalities, bigger ones, and then all these smaller ones, that aren't getting the funding or misappropriating their budgets. They aren’t reinvesting in themselves and their infrastructure. So now it's failing.
Two: Contamination and pollution. Water 101: Most of our water comes from surface waters. Rivers create tributaries that can be blended with aquifer water, which oftentimes can be polluted. When the water comes into the municipal system, we add chlorine to prevent viruses and E. coli. But what people don't understand is surface impoundments that come in have organic matter, which is dirt, in them. When dirt and chlorination meet at that juncture it creates a toxic compound called Trihalomethanes (THM), which has oversight in the Safe Drinking Waters Act. But municipalities don’t always follow the protocols, so when they can't control the THM they add ammonia to the system. When you add ammonia and chlorine it creates corrosive water, which then causes the bacteria to feed off the ammonia. So you've gone from the point where it comes into the municipality and out of your tap in a way that is unregulated.
Also, we have lead pipes. So we have ammonia and bacteria growing that causes the lead in the iron to drip into the water. If we just stopped adding ammonia to our municipal water systems, we could reduce the lead contamination and reduce the Legionnaire disease outbreaks that are playing out across the country. So this is about infrastructure—but we need to be realistic. We're looking at trillions of dollars and decades to replace and recommission this country's infrastructure system. There are other steps that we can take to reduce it until we can complete the goal of changing out all our lead pipes.
Three: We must ensure that we have qualified water operators working at these municipalities. How policies are set is important. The PFAS, the firefighting foams, are the largest emerging contaminants to affect our national water. Historically, the EPA set a guideline for this chemical to run through the system up to 400 parts per trillion. Then a study that took 20-plus years concluded that PFAS is a public health hazard. The EPA then set the guideline down to 70 parts—but the municipalities can't meet it. One of the policies that need to change is how we deal with the EPA and not letting the chemical companies bring all these chemicals without studies into the stream of commerce for us to find out 20 years later.
And what role does climate change play?
At this point, look no further than your backyard. In California, where I've lived for a very long time, I've never seen triple digits and no snowpack, and such little rainfall. And the fires are burning hotter than ever. I think people don't talk about or recognize climate change in this way because they think of climate as the sky and the air. Climate change is water events, too: Too much flooding. Rising sea levels. Melting snow cap. Water scarcity. That’s a climate change visual. So it’s about information and awareness that is tangible so you can take action.
Again, we thought someone had our back on this. Well, here we are. We have to change if you want them to change. We have to make a conservative, in-sync correction- and solution-driven effort of saving our water, conserving our water, changing our practices, reducing emissions, and helping this planet get stabilized.
I'm in the legacy phase and I'm worried about my grandchildren. And all of us can make an impact. We just must believe that we can see where the problems are and get past the blame game. I think of the planet as a bank vault. We have our ATM cards and we go in and withdraw and withdraw and withdraw, but we never deposit anything back. And at one point that vault has no more money. So you get the notice of no funds. That’s happening with mother earth. We've taken and taken and taken because it's provided everything that made us who we are and it's running on empty. So we need to make those deposits back.
How can we each begin to make those deposits? What are some steps toward the right direction?
I have learned, from me personally and from communities, that we don’t like to admit that we have played a role in this. Then we put the blankets over our heads. But I had found that when you can go maybe I had a part in this, but that's okay, true empowerment starts to rise. I make the comparison about going to the bank. What are you going to do when the ATM spits out ‘out of funds’? You'll figure out where you got careless. Maybe you’ll get that second job so you can put some money back into that vault. I see it like that. If we continue to deteriorate our environment, we deteriorate ourselves. Our climate’s in peril and so are we. We need to reconnect to that by doing whatever one thing you can—starting in your backyard.
I tell people that my favorite film isn't Erin Brockovich, it's Pay It Forward. Start by picking that one action, no matter how small it is, master that, and then pass it on. And if we each keep doing that one step, the power is in the leverage of the collective of the people. And one plus one can be a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million, and more.
That one step can be:
- Notifying a neighbor.
- Having a conversation with someone.
- Showing up at your City Council where permits are passed. Oftentimes those City Council members are there talking to themselves because we don't show up.
- Educating yourself on the chemicals.
- Reading one article on water or climate change a day.
What about when we still feel like putting the blankets over our heads?
I’ve learned that we cannot make environmental changes without our hearts. In Hinkley, I was told ‘you're not a doctor, you’re not a lawyer, you’re not a scientist so why should we take anything from you?’ I was struck by that because often many of us step back in our life because we aren't “that.” Well, I don't have to be “that” to be a human and to tell you what I see and what I'm experiencing that something is wrong. I want people to know that about themselves. What hurts me is seeing these communities feel powerless. They aren't heard or seen. When I talk about 'Superman’s Not Coming', well that's okay. That may be the greatest thing ever because you don't have to look any further than the person in the mirror. Oftentimes, it's about this own system of emotion and thoughts that live within our bodies that we have to embrace. We have to own that—the good, bad, ugly, indifferent. Don’t be afraid to look at yourself.
I'm fascinated with caterpillars. In their cocoon, they dissect themselves to morph into a butterfly. If we could look at ourselves and dissect the little things that we don't like and recognize the things that we do like, that process will be empowering to morph you into a butterfly.
We're not good to ourselves and we're always looking for a hero. We must look no further than in our own hearts to be that hero.
Erin Brockovich is an environmental activist, public health advocate, and New York Times bestselling author. She is the president of Brockovich Research and Consulting, and the founder of the Erin Brockovich Foundation, a nonprofit focused on educating communities in their fight for clean, safe water. You can read about the state of our water in Brockovich's newsletter, ‘The Brockovich Report’, and in her latest book Superman’s Not Coming. To learn more visit brockovich.com.