Erin Brockovich Would Like to Remind You That It's Not "Fine"
Erin Brockovich has had the same advice for 27 years, and it’s as urgent now as it was then, when she was imploring the residents of Hinkley, Calif. to defend their right to clean water — you know, the kind that isn’t green and home to two-headed frogs and deemed movie-worthy because of its appalling, cartoonish appearance. When we spoke on the phone last week, I could feel the emphasis in her voice, coming in bold and all-caps: “Don’t wait!”
As in, don’t wait to get your water tested; Don’t wait to compare your results against the standards of the Environmental Working Group (not the EPA), a non-profit organization that conducts research about the effects of pollutants in agricultural systems and drinking water; Don’t wait to do the work, and then rally your community to join your pursuit of safe water; Don’t wait to educate yourself about the dangers of contaminated water. Don’t wait. Don’t wait. Don’t wait — because Superman’s not coming to save you.
The 60-year-old, whose name, to me, conjures up images of Julia Roberts in spaghetti strap tank tops, short shorts, stilettos, and frizzy-in-a-good-way curls plopped on top of her head, but to many others conjures up an image of a warrior in the fight for clean water, is releasing a new book entirely predicated on the idea that there is no water savior, no hero. Superman’s Not Coming, out today via Pantheon Books, is part memoir, part non-fiction report, and part call-to-action — a plea to readers to engage with the water crisis in America because no one else is going to do the work for you. No one is going to make sure that you’re not swept up in (*Googles name of Superman’s nemesis*) the Lex Luthor-like threat that is a contaminated water supply.
“We are literally shitting in our own mess kit,” she enthuses. “If you are just going to continue to pollute the water and continue to pollute the land and continue to grow polluted poisoned food, what on earth is anybody possibly thinking the end result will be?”
It so happens that days before we speak, I came across research about my own local water crises. In our little tourist town in Pennsylvania, where my boyfriend and I have just moved into a house with private well water, there is concern over PFOS and PFAS, which, Erin tells me, have been linked to testicular cancer and kidney disease. And this is just one small example of thousands of water crisis hot spots around the country.
How did we get here? To a place where Erin Brockovich’s work is still as relevant (if not more so) as it was in 1993, when she took on Pacific Gas & Electric, trekking across the California desert to warn Hinkley residents — who were suffering ailments from nosebleeds to cancer — about their water? Or in 2000, when she became a household name thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film about that very fight?
Brockovich’s emphatic answer jolts me through the phone again: Infrastructure. She utters the word a total of 17 times throughout the course of our 30-minute conversation. “Let's get right down to the basics here,” she says. “We've got huge infrastructure problems, [and major corporations] just keep ignoring them. Then, we have these huge economic disasters. And then [they say], ‘Well, we don't have the money to do it.’ Yes, you did. Industry can step up and give a really big lending hand here.”
For stretches of our conversation, I find myself quiet, nodding along despite the fact that she can’t see me. (Our Zoom call was canceled in favor of a phone call because Erin’s internet kept dropping out, which she tells me is a result of the wildfires blazing across Southern California. And the failing infrastructure.) I answered rhetorical questions with the appropriate “yes!” and “no!” and mumbled the affirmative mhmm under my breath. About 20 minutes into our chat, I find myself riled up, ready to knock on the doors of my neighbors’ homes to ask them: “Have you had your well water tested recently? Which chemicals are you testing for? What kind of filtration system do you have in your home?”
As our talk spilled over into the territory of the effectiveness of the political system (because it always does), I took stock of the righteous anger she had stirred in me and blurted, “Have you ever thought about running for office?”
“People have asked me that. Yeah, I could. I would but here's the thing, if I could only go right or left or your way or the highway and not just a way that is good for all … I don't want to get sucked into that.”
Clean water shouldn’t be political, she says. I agree (“mhmm”). But in the wake of the crisis in Flint, Mich. — and the “Flint of the North” (Hoosick Falls, N.Y., which suffered from PFOS contamination), and the “Flint of the South” (Lake Okeechobee, Flor., where toxic algae blooms threaten the local water supply), and the many, many Flints across America that she describes in her book, it has become political. We both sigh.
“There has been so much [talk] of labels and perceptions and judgments and ideas put here and put there,” she says of the political system. “Nobody really wants to be the first person out and to be wrong. But here's the thing, I embrace those with vulnerabilities, I embrace my mistakes. And so what if I was wrong? At least I tried. And I want all of us to do that — and that’s a big expectation.” She concludes her thought with a perhaps unintentional Michael Jackson reference: “I think what we need to do is look at the man in the mirror, look at the woman in the mirror.”
While Brockovich will not appear on any 2020 ballots, she helpfully outlines the federal government’s neglect, and what needs to be done to address the country’s water crisis moving forward in Superman’s Not Coming. She writes of the collapse of the Environmental Protection Agency (which, she reminds me, was founded by Republican President Richard Nixon) under the Trump administration, describing the disastrous consequences of the decision to gut the agency.
“What we need is a well-funded, robust agency full of our best and brightest,” she writes. “What we have is an underfunded, understaffed, overstretched federal department. This agency can’t keep up with all the pollution and corruption happening across the country.”
“These days, the EPA is more focused on cutting programs and killing regulations than on protecting us from toxic chemicals. Regulations without proper enforcement and oversight are moot. If we don’t shift gears soon, we may never pull out of this mess.”
For those of us who are not Andrew Wheeler, current administrator of the EPA, Brockovich has a plan for us, too. And it’s pretty much idiot-proof. In her book, you’ll find a handy flowchart outlining the 7 steps to ensuring that your water is safe (step one is — you guessed it: Don’t wait to get your water tested or to request a report from your local municipality). And while the subject of contaminated drinking water may seem heavy, jargon-laden, and brimming with toxic despair, Brockovich herself is anything but, seamlessly weaving her trademark frankness and genuine outrage throughout both the book and our phone call. The priorities of the companies who are most responsible for water contamination are “ass backwards.” She uses two football metaphors and a Wizard of Oz reference to illustrate complicated issues. At one point, she tells me I sound like I must be a "cool cat." (I beamed.)
Like you would expect of the beloved underdog heroine of the 2000 movie, Brockovich is a woman who blew out an attic space to expand her closet. “I don't care if I'm 60, I'm rocking the thigh-high boots and my leggings, and here I come.”
When I mention that “Erin Brockovich outfits” is an entire category of Pinterest boards, she laughs, telling me that she has “no fashion sense at all,” which, in the interest of journalistic integrity, I must point out is a lie. I mean, she accurately referred to the leopard print top and black skirt combo worn by Roberts as one of the 2000 movie's best looks.
These days, her equivalent of that ‘90s “mish-mosh” fashion energy looks more like thigh-high, flat Stuart Weitzman boots with a pair of ripped up, black jeans — “but you've got to have the leopard print top.” Across the phone, I imagine Brockovich in this look, her blonde, shoulder-length hair still as recognizable as ever, leading a crowd clean water advocates across the Southern California community she’s called home for decades.
She tells me that the Women’s March, the Black Lives Matter movement, the March for our Lives — ”these movements have shown us all that marches are only the beginning.”
“Can we find enough passionate people to sustain a water movement that will address these systematic failures?” she asks. “Ultimately, our community drinking water systems belong to us. We pay for the water and without us, these systems can’t continue. We need to step up and take an interest in our drinking water systems, our infrastructure, and our government.” Don’t wait.