Environmental activist Erin Brockovich

Originally aired on July 6, 2012

Brockovich describes the water crisis in the U.S., her issues with the EPA and why she feels Americans live in a third world country—all of which are detailed in the documentary, Last Call at the Oasis.

When it comes to environmental battles, Erin Brockovich has been described as a modern-day "David" against today's "Goliaths." Hers became a household name with the 2000 biopic, which chronicled how her work as a legal clerk helped force a utility giant to pay the largest toxic tort injury settlement in U.S. history. She's used her notoriety, along with various TV projects and her own research & consulting firm, to encourage others to take a stand. Brockovich is involved in numerous environmental projects and featured in the documentary Last Call at the Oasis, which focuses on the growing global water crisis.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Erin Brockovich is a long-time environmentalist and clean water advocate who, of course, inspired the Oscar-winning film starring Julia Roberts. She is currently featured in a new documentary on the subject of our water crisis.

It’s called “Last Call at the Oasis.” The film is now playing in select cities. Here a scene now from “Last Call at the Oasis.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So we obviously didn’t plan this. I know I certainly did not. But you and I were talking when you walked on the set that just days ago you were at one of these superfund sites in this extreme heat and I was in Charlotte, North Carolina for three or four days with 105 degree temperature every day.

So the timing of a conversation about a water crisis with this heat wave couldn’t be more propitious, I suspect.

Erin Brockovich: Oh, yeah. You know, sometimes we — it’s not sometimes, but most of the time, we can take water for granted, that it’s always there and especially when we’re in a heat wave.

I mean, that’s the one thing we clearly gravitate to for every purpose, for drinking, for getting into the sprinklers, swimming, cooling off, jumping in rivers…

Tavis: Putting out the fires.

Brockovich: Putting out the fires. Water, it’s everything.

Tavis: So let’s jump right in. How bad is this water crisis?

Brockovich: We definitely are in a serious water crisis. For those who haven’t seen “Last Call at the Oasis,” it can be kind of a daunting look at the situation we’re in about the misuse, the lack of, the overuse and the pollution of our water here in the United States. You know, we don’t think it’s us, but like I said in the film, it already is you.

We see these scenarios play themselves out in other countries and we always go there to aid and rescue when we have that same problem right here in the United States.

I mean, in the film, “Last Call at the Oasis,” they show the impending crisis that could be potentially coming to California. It’s hard to watch, but there’s also hope for us.

There are things that we can be doing from how we use our water to the pollution of our water to creating new ways to clean that water to disposing of waste properly. That could be the game-changer if we would only wake up and become aware that this situation is really happening.

Tavis: So we’ll talk about solutions a little bit later in the conversation, but since you and I both live here in California and this is not obviously just a California crisis, but to your word, it’s impending here in California. So what are we up against here in California specifically?

Brockovich: Well, pollution, for one of them. I mean, what people don’t understand is like when water gets polluted, it’s an entire aquifer.

There’s a whole fascinating world that exists underneath our feet that we don’t see, therefore we don’t relate. I’m very visual and I need to see things to understand it. When pollution hits, you know, think about when you flush a toilet or you just randomly turn on your sink.

Where do you think all that water goes? It spreads out and the same thing happens when there’s pollution. It spreads out. It can get carried on for miles. It can end up in municipal systems. It can end up in private wells.

We have 38 million Americans on well water, a large number here in California for farming use, for agricultural use. Oftentimes they don’t know that the pollution is there.

To the misuse of water, for every one of us, again, just letting the water run in your sink, to unnecessarily watering your lawn too often or outside hosing down the deck and you drop the hose and you go inside. Not allowing that to happen anymore, to figuring out for farmers better and more effective ways to use our water.

We’re gonna need that for the farmers and wells are running dry. We’re having issues with fracking and people coming in. It takes millions and millions and millions and millions of gallons of water to frack one well and we’re actually running wells dry all over the United States.

Tavis: So here’s the difficult question. Obviously, you do this work every day, so this is not foreign to you. But I wonder how it is that people get that message, myself included?

How do we get that message about the crisis so long as every time you go to the spigot or to the faucet and you turn it on or you flush your toilet, it works?

Brockovich: Right.

Tavis: I mean, it’s almost like, you know, anything else in life. People don’t really get it until they have to go through it and that’s true of…

Brockovich: Everything.

Tavis: Everything, yeah. I was gonna start listing some things. Why even list? You’re right. It’s true of everything. So how do you get traction on an issue like this so long as everybody goes to the faucet and turns it on and it works?

Brockovich: Right. Well, I hope by doing things that we’re doing today, talking about it, to films like “Last Call at the Oasis,” to the work that I’m doing from going to universities and lecturing to students. You know, there is a real generation up and coming that’s very well aware of this impending crisis.

Tavis: You think so?

Brockovich: Yes.

Tavis: What’s making them so more aware than you or me?

Brockovich: I think the stories they watch, for one. The social world has really opened us up. I’m amazed and I can tell you here today certainly how hopeful I am because I see communities contacting me all day long. I get anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 emails a month.

I have over 100,000 every month and more just checking back into my site coming from 124 countries and territories. They’re reporting back to me things that they see going on in their community.

And at the university level, they’re out there studying it, they’re seeing it, they’re learning about pollution, they’re learning about fracking, and they want to get into science. They want to get into technology.

Their little minds are really anxious to create better ways to generate waste, better ways to preserve and use our water more effectively.

I think because of the issues of global warming, the awareness, the social world we’ve become, now they can see more. They can believe more.

This isn’t a water crisis that is possibly gonna effect you and I tomorrow in the next five years, but you know what really stunned me was just a few weeks ago. My baby in the film, “Erin Brockovich,” is now having a baby, my first grandbaby. I look and I think I’m going to be holding my next generation and that is the one that’ll be in trouble.

Sometimes you have to see the forest through the trees and realize here in the United States there are people in parts of Texas that are turning on their water and their well is dry. That is what makes it real for us. We need to have that compassion.

Listen, take a look at history. So many things that we have said were coming, we didn’t want to believe it, and they came. We need to be prepared. We need to take preventative measures. We need to be prepared. What’s the worst that’s gonna happen for someone?

I take it for granted too that I’m just gonna turn on the water and it could be there, but I know more. It’s to be better prepared for when that moment happens, how I could get through it.

We have to realize — I would think here in California because of an earthquake, if we have a major earthquake, you know our water supplies are gonna be interrupted.

Just coming back from the East Coast, some of the storms? They prevented some people who were under boil water orders who may not have had water momentarily, had to be shut down for a day. All those things, you know, when it hits home for you, then it becomes real.

Tavis: This is a broad question admittedly and I don’t want to color it…

Brockovich: I hope that answered your question.

Tavis: It does. It answered brilliantly. This is a broad question admittedly because I want to give you room to paint however you want to paint with regard to your answer here.

But what are the politics on this? I’m asking a broad question because you’ve been death on the EPA and I think legitimately so in a lot of ways.

I’m not talking about Obama or Romney. I’m talking about in Washington. You mentioned global warming for a second. I mean, the debate in Washington about those who believe and those who don’t believe.

I suspect water is the same way. Those who think, oh, this is a crisis of somebody’s imagination or somebody’s making. The same is true of social security. It’s really not gonna run out. It’s really safe. No, it’s not.

I mean, the American people oftentimes don’t know whether to go left or right, what to believe or not to believe based upon the fact that our leaders in Washington, the politics on this stuff is so strained. I digress, but what are politics on this water crisis?

Brockovich: Funny you should ask that because I went to Washington for “Last Call at the Oasis” and I really thought I was gonna pull my hair out. I saw that bickering and I’m like I don’t know how we get anything done.

I mean, first of all, I am truly disappointed with the Environmental Protection Agency. I mean, this is an agency that’s supposed to have oversight. We believe as people that that agency’s superman is gonna come rescue us and that’s the first thing that people need to do.

Politics for me has no play here. This is a human rights issue and politics doesn’t play with people that way.

That’s what we need to make it because it’s gonna be all of our crisis. I think there’s a whole lot of things that could be done. The first thing I work with communities on is to leave the politics out.

Here’s why they can do that. They are now affected. What they see is what they believe and they have to take measures no matter what politics are gonna do at this very moment. To begin to save their own health and their own family, that’s what’s most important to them.

I’m out in communities all day long throughout the United States of America. They now see the two-headed trout. They now see the frogs turning into hermaphrodites. They now see their water being lit on fire. They now see green water coming out of the tap.

I didn’t grow up in an era where I thought that that was acceptable. I can’t believe we’re gonna get to a society where we think that is now acceptable.

These people at a community level are starting to act and leave politics aside, whether they create their own water co-op, whether they create collectively and they get to an agency that forces filtration systems on their well head. They are starting to mobilize and they will be the ones, if you ask me. They’re ultimately gonna make a difference.

But the politics is absolutely frightening and I think it needs to be left out of this. This is a water issue. This is a human rights issue. This is our issue and it will be up to us to do something.

Tavis: So what’s the essence of your beef with the EPA?

Brockovich: Oh, my gosh.

Tavis: Too big a question, huh [laugh]?

Brockovich: I have to mind my manners when we talk about this because it’s frustrating for me. I think I too was one of those people that felt that this agency was in place to protect us.

Over the past 20 years and all the communities that I’ve been in, they are absent and I believe for potentially a whole host of reasons. They are under-staffed. They are over-burdened. It’s not that they don’t have funds. Let’s be honest. They’re flat out broke.

So these agencies, when they do get there, come in and initiate for a cleanup because what they’re gonna do is just sue that defendant anyway for a cleanup. And because I think it’s gotten so big so fast, they can’t even get in and clean up most of the sites we have.

There’s anywhere estimated between 15,000 to 30,000 superfund sites that exist today that we aren’t cleaning up. I’m involved in cases where the EPA is involved and they were a little too late. They showed up 30 years later.

I just came back from Minnesota on the nation’s number one superfund site. Nobody in the community knew. So I don’t know where the ball has been dropped, but it is insanity. It’s inexcusable. It’s an agency that’s not doing their job.

They have terrible networking. They don’t talk with other agencies like the Center for Disease Control or the agency for toxic substances and disease registry. They don’t communicate effectively with the state. And the number one thing that bothers me is it’s not their job, they say. So you tell me whose job it is.

When you have a population of people living on top of a superfund site and you know that they’re ingesting it and you know that there’s soil vapor underneath their homes and volatizing into their home and you don’t come back and check on their health and welfare, whose job is that?

That’s one thing that I’ve started doing with the help of Google. We’re creating what we call The People’s Reporting Registry where these communities on these superfund sites can get to me and begin to report what’s happening with their health.

It’s actually startling what we’re starting to see. You know, as I said to you earlier, drinking green water, two-headed fish, frogs turning into hermaphrodites, is not acceptable.

Where it is we politically get hung up, when a community and the people themselves, those with cancer, report to us. We have 59 people in our neighborhood with glioblastoma brain tumors. Where is that okay?

It’s not, and it’s playing itself out site after site after site. There’s thousands of them. There’s 4,000 of them on my map today, yet no agency wants to look at it because the politics get involved.

What I’m concerned about is, if the agencies are gonna be lax like that, just say it. Let’s figure out a new way to run this agency. Maybe we shouldn’t have this agency.

Maybe we’d better create another one that will provide that oversight so we can get data, so we can get information, so maybe we can help people and maybe we can clean up the water. But as long as these politics come into play, we’re going nowhere. It drives me crazy.

I was in Leadwood, Missouri, a case that we’re involved in. We all know how dangerous lead is to children. That’s common knowledge.

There is a huge defendant out there that, instead of disposing of their lead piles appropriately, they just create mounds all over the town and the kids are playing in them.

As we were driving down the street and watching this, we were taking photos of the children. As they waved, their hands were gray from lead underneath. What kind of generation are they going to be?

I stood there and I thought, you know, the last time I checked, I thought I was in the United States of America. I feel like I’m in a third world. I really do.

It is time for us to come home and we will run to every country’s aid and, right now because we don’t see what’s happening in Missouri. I do. Because we don’t see what’s happening down in Texas. I do.

We’re gonna have to come back home and start aiding ourselves, rebuilding our infrastructure. We have 38 million Americans on well water, a system off the grid. Most of them have contaminated water.

We could rebuild those systems. We could be putting more science and technology to work in teaching our children how to dispose of this waste. We could be cleaning up the mess that we’ve made. We tell our two-year-olds to clean up your room, yet we won’t do it.

Tavis: I’m not naive, obviously, Erin, in asking of this question, but I’m asking because I want to get your sense of it, obviously.

Jamie Dimon showed up in Washington a few weeks ago and we all watched on television the way that he was handled with care and with kid gloves basically, and the relationship between politicians, the relationship between government and big business is well documented.

As Calvin Coolidge once said, the business of America is business. So one could argue that America in some ways was a corporation before it was even a country. That’s my own diatribe.

But it does raise this question. Just as there’s an issue to be raised around politics and money, how much of the fact that the EPA isn’t stepping up in the way that you and others think they should has to do with the cozy relationship between EPA and business?

I mean, they’re supposed to be looking out for us, but how much of this is an indictment on that relationship?

Brockovich: Well, I think that there is some and we talk about that. You know, we don’t call it superfund anymore. We call it super failure and politics are involved.

Tavis: Right.

Brockovich: Then there’s some loopholes in there that, once it becomes a superfund site, that’s for the people because now politically in between government and big corporations, somewhere it’s gonna get a pass. That’s very concerning and we cannot continue to do that.

You know, it is people that run these companies. Nobody’s ever gonna convince me that a CEO wouldn’t care if his own child was poisoned.

Communities and companies, they go hand in hand. I’m out there with these communities. They want the jobs. They don’t want to be poisoned, though, either.

Somehow these companies who have the technology, who have the person power, who have the funds, it becomes a moral issue. You can do the right thing; you can do the wrong thing.

Everything that I’m seeing in America, when it comes to the groundwater contamination and the poisoning of people I see, it’s a moral issue.

Tavis: Back to the film specifically and the water crisis. Does the film give us any indication of how long — we talked earlier about California and how close we are to the precipice here.

But does the film give us any sense of how long we have before the supply is either gone or…

Brockovich: Or people aren’t getting water?

Tavis: Yeah, exactly.

Brockovich: As short as 50 years.

Tavis: As short as 50 years.

Brockovich: Yeah. And, boy, it goes by quick. I’ll tell you that. I know that for sure. When I turned 50, I was like going, oh, my gosh! It’s here! I had this experience with my father, my greatest mentor in my life. My dad — and it shows in the film — I was born and raised in Kansas.

He taught me that water would be a commodity in my lifetime. I think he’s gonna be right and I have to sing these songs. See, water is a necessary element for any one of us to sustain life. It doesn’t matter who you are.

When he passed away last year, I’ll never forget it. He was sitting there, 88 years old, and he was just shaking his head. I said, “Dad, what’s wrong?” He goes, “It’s here. I never thought it would come.” 50 years for us to have no water potentially, that’s fast.

Tavis: I’m glad you went there because there are two questions I want to ask you about family, one about your parents and the other about your son before my time runs out. So you mentioned your dad. Your mom was a journalist?

Brockovich: My mom was a dual major journalist in sociology.

Tavis: I remember reading this, yeah. So tell me about your parents ’cause this kind of advocacy and this kind of energy comes from someplace. So tell me about your mom and them.

Brockovich: My mom and my dad, you know, they taught me the greatest gifts we have are our family, our health and the right to clean water and good land.

If you think about it, none of us can take it with us when we’re gone. It’s what we leave that’s gonna matter. And my mom and dad always taught me that lesson.

You know, they taught me the value of good water and being outside and farming and family and health. That’s it. For me, what I see happening in this crisis is deterioration of the family. It is deterioration of our health.

It’s a breakdown of a fundamental core value system that I think this country was built upon, that families were built upon that we’ve moved away from, and we need to get back to that or we risk huge failure. So my mother and my father were my absolute inspiration.

Tavis: I read about your son. Upon reading about it, I thought about how interesting a dialectic this is. So you’re challenging the government to do better.

Your son served in Afghanistan protecting our freedoms in this country. Does that ever strike you as being an interesting sort of interplay?

Brockovich: Absolutely, every single day, every single day. I’m serious. I get down and I thank God that my son came home alive and so many of his friends didn’t. He was one of a few of his whole squad. The rest were murdered in front of him.

The war is terrible and I uphold what our men and women are willing to sacrifice and do for us. To see this happening at home breaks my heart. I’m very involved in a situation called Camp Lejeune. ABC Nightline just did a special on it.

They knew they had a very severe TCE and benzene water contamination, so our soldiers who have done one and two and three tours of duty have come home to be poisoned on their own soil, the United States of America, and to find out that their own families had been poisoned.

They’ve lost their children to birth defects. They’ve lost their children at the age of 10 and 11 and 12 to leukemia.

To the tens upon tens of thousands of soldiers who could lose their life from cancer due to groundwater contamination, numbers higher than what we see in a war, is absolutely to me inexcusable and I think the biggest black eye that America has. We cannot allow that to happen.

Tavis: I doubt very seriously this is your first time seeing Erin Brockovich on national television, but if you saw the movie about her life and legacy and her work ongoing starring Julia Robertson — by the way, of course, Ms. Robertson won the Academy Award for Best Actress that year for playing Erin Brockovich — if you saw the movie, now you know that it’s real [laugh].

Brockovich: Excuse me. I get too intense.

Tavis: No, I love the passion and, for people who have seen you for the first time, they get it now that Julia was playing a real character. This is her and she’s fighting for the protection and the preservation of clean and pure water.

The new project is called “Last Call at the Oasis” and you should check it out. Erin, good to have you on the program, and thank you for your work.

Brockovich: Oh, it’s so nice to be here. Thank you very much.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. Thank you so much.

Brockovich: It was really nice. I’m a fan of your work. Thank you.

Tavis: My pleasure. I’m a fan of yours as well. Thank you. That’s our show for tonight.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Seattle Viewer

    Tavis, I record your show every day, and almost skipped this Brockovich interview (because my DVR was so full from the holiday weekend). Once again, you and your producers find us the most relevant and interesting guests around. Thank You. (TY to both the work Erin Brockovich does, and to Tavis for his daily TV show on PBS). BAD NEWS: We missed the July 6th Seattle showing by one day (SIFF) – hope to see “Last call at the Oasis” back in Tacoma/Seattle area!

  • JENN STEWART

    Thank You to Erin; I have a 20 year old; and 17 year old; whom both had “lead/arsenic water: poisoning… I grew up by Shoram Nuclear Plant; and am a proud mom of my sons’; and their father; Decorated Desert Storm Venteran; and my mom; who is a 3 time “cancer” survirvor; 65 years young of lymphatic two times breast; and then again Thyroid Cancer; treated by Sloan Kettering… and I am a proud 42 year old mom..who has had her thyroid removed; lumps in her breasts; and three spots in her uterine… and am proud to be one of the 10K in Orange County/NY to be unemployed for five months; soon to be longer; but proud to be cncer free.

Last modified: April 16, 2013 at 3:21 pm