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Being Erin Brockovich: still mad, still fighting for clean water.

By Jay Stone, Postmedia News February 15, 2012 Canada.com BERLIN – Erin Brockovich comes into the room carrying what looks like a glass of water. On closer inspection, it turns out to be vodka and tonic. Erin Brockovich is nobody’s fool. Not that there’s anything wrong with the tap water in Germany, although there could be. Brockovich is careful that way. She won’t drink the water in any community that gets it from wells – as 40 million Americans do – because it’s not tested and she doesn’t trust it. She doesn’t like the sulphuric taste of water in Florida, so she drinks bottled water when she’s there. Once, in Indonesia, she was so suspicious of the water that she brushed her teeth with beer. Brockovich became forever associated with the issue of water pollution after the 2000 film – for which Julia Roberts won an Oscar – based on the true story of how she fought Pacific Gas and Electric for allowing dangerous chemicals into the water supply of Hinkley, California. She has become the public face of public outrage. She’s now working on the case of a Le Roy, N.Y., school where there is a cluster of children with unusual neurological symptoms. Some people think it’s because of dirty well water, so someone called Brockovich. “People can’t trust anybody, which is why I get so many e-mails,” she says. “People don’t know where to report information.” She is also one of the experts in the new documentary Last Call at the Oasis, which is being screened at the Berlin film festival. It’s a warning about the dwindling supply of clean drinking water in the world: dry lakes, farmers in Australia killing themselves because draught has destroyed their agriculture, Las Vegas on the verge of a water emergency, and much more. Last Call at the Oasis was produced by Participant Media, which has previously grown alarmed by the crises of global warming (An Inconvenient Truth), agriculture (Food, Inc.) and American education (Waiting for Superman.) Director Jessica Yu (the Oscar-winning Breathing Lessons) talked to experts ranging from hydrologists to an expert in how a cocktail of pharmaceuticals are finding their way into the water supply. But it is Brockovich – the legal assistant who became a household name – who carries the ball when the time comes to talk to the press. “There are people in our country who don’t get water, and that is a shocker for people,” she says. “Because they think everybody gets water. It’s not true. In the United States of America we have people who are not getting water. That’s the eye-opener for me.” “I got emails from 124 countries and territories with polluted water. Larger number of children with cancer. It’s something we hope the film will wake people up to, so they’ll be inspired to want to do something to make changes.” Brockovich still works as a consumer advocate, but she’s also something of a motivational speaker. “I grew up as the underdog and everybody told me I couldn’t do something. And I would be that way if I chose to see myself that way. And I saw people everywhere, no matter what walk of life they were, feeling they didn’t count.” Last Call At The Oasis sounds like a frightening warning, but Brockovich says there’s plenty people can do about it. “The first step is to make a recognition that when I turn on my tap, to not take it for granted,” she says. “I’m always pleasantly surprised by the numbers of e-mails I get, even from Canada where the tarsands are, for example, where the community isn’t waiting for an agency to make it right. They’re trying to mobilize among themselves to get to council meetings, to get involved in local politics. “They’re informing their neighbours . . . in the absence of information, everyone becomes defenceless to stand by themselves. If you see something, say something. Did you notice your water smelled funny? Don’t be afraid to talk about it.” Last Call at the Oasis touches on the issue of bottled water, but it doesn’t address the problem of the used bottles (for that you have to watch other documentaries, such as Addicted To Plastic). Yu compares it to the American debate over public vs. private schools – people think it’s better if they pay more for it. Strangely, she found that Americans pay almost exactly as much for bottled water, $11.2 billion a year, as they would pay to improve the public system. But even that is a growing cost. Brockovich said she pays $400 a month for water in California. “Poor people can’t afford that,” she says. “It’s a hardship on me. Is water going to become that moment where poor (people) die of dehydration because they can’t afford it? It’s supposed to be a human right to have water.” Yu says that if anyone in the world has the right to be suspicious of the water she’s drinking, it’s Brockovich. The film made her famous – she’s says it’s “weird” having a name that’s the same as a popular film – and the lessons she learned from the case were mostly about corporate responsibility. “I think about Hinkley, California all the time and PG&E,” said Brockovich. “Had PG&E had a little more morality and put money second, and come out and been respectful and transparent with the community – we had a disaster and we need to get you out of here – they would have had full co-operation. Instead, they chose to hide and to conceal it, which caused them a lot more problems.” She said the company has faced several lawsuits that, combined with defence fees and cleanup bills, have cost the company $2 billion, not to mention the destruction of the environment and lost lives. “A new business model has to come into play,” she said. “Some morality has to come from corporations. And that’s where you’ll find your solution . . . we have to find new ways to be our own heroes and companies to find their morality.” It was a call to arms from a woman who proved that the little guy can take on the big companies and win. I asked her how the water is in Hinkley these days. “Not good” she said. http://www2.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/artslife/story.html?id=f999f653-f5b8-459c-98d8-a79470acd0eb