The last activist you read about was Henry Highland Garnet, the pastor and former slave whose inspiring oratory skills were instrumental in urging slaves to rebel against masters. This time we focus on a woman who, similarly, encourages victims of injustice to speak out. The difference is these are largely environmental injustices, like pollution. The woman is Erin Brockovich.
Last time, we told you about Henry Highland Garnet – the man that told slaves to let their motto be resistance.
This time, we present to you a woman who has done exactly that in the battle against PG&E; a.k.a winning the largest toxic injury settlement in US history.
Brockovich had no formal training in law before her remarkable legal success. Her background is an unlikely route; a k-Mart employee and a beauty pageant winner (Miss Pacific Coast 1981, no less). Her feisty spirit is evident in the manner she acquired a different job: after a lawyer, Edward Masry, lost a personal injury claim she tried to make after a car accident, she forced him to employ her!
It was while working as a part time file clerk at Masry’s law firm, alongside raising three children singlehandedly, that she came across files about Pacific Gas &Electric co. In 1952, San Francisco based PG &E opened a natural gas compression station in Hinkley, California. They used hexavalent chromium-6 – a carcinogen – in cooling tanks to prevent rust. The water from these tanks was dumped into ponds, which seeped into groundwater. Brockovich linked this discovery to a series of unusual health issues in Hinkley. She discovered that PG&E knew they were responsible and had deliberately misled citizens about the impact of the chemical. Brockovich became determined to force the company to face the consequences.
After a lengthy battle, she won the largest toxic injury settlement in US history against PG&E; $333million compensation, distributed between over 600 residents whose health had been affected to greater or lesser extents. Some experienced skin irritation, while others had permanent kidney damage from the water quality.
Brockovich caught the activism bug after this triumph and became involved in other anti-pollution lawsuits, like against Whitman Corporation, for their chromium contamination in Willits, CA and against Beverly Hills Unified school district who were deemed irresponsible for permitting harmful oil wells on campus.
Her determination to “right wrongs”, as her expansive website reads, continues beyond pollution problems. Her most recent project has been supporting the countless women affected by medical giant Bayer’s negligence in marketing a supposedly 99.8% effective sterilisation device, that hasn’t prevented pregnancy, and in some cases caused severe pain to women fitted with the device.
Brockovich’s relentless pursuit of fairness attracts such admiration her story was made into a Hollywood film, for which Julia Roberts won an Oscar. She has never cowed in the face of the immense power corporations hold, even when her family received threats. She has never allowed her prior inexperience legally to restrict her, and remains to this day utterly fearless in her quest to expose corporate wrongdoing. She may have financially benefited from her activism, but I believe, for her, this is of secondary importance to seeking justice: “If you follow your heart, if you listen to your gut, and if you extend your hand to help another, not for any agenda, but for the sake of humanity, you are going to find the truth”.