- - Thursday, May 10, 2012

The real Erin Brockovich doesn’t look all that much like Julia Roberts. But with her shock of dyed-blonde hair, her spiffy black boots and her practiced, camera-ready smile, she nevertheless stands out in a room.

And much like her big-screen counterpart — Miss Roberts won an Academy Award for her feisty portrayal of Ms. Brockovich in the widely praised 2000 film that bears the activist’s name — the real Erin Brockovich comes prepared to monologue.

Following the popular movie, which chronicled a legal fight against Pacific Gas & Electric in Hinkley, Calif., Ms. Brockovich became one of the country’s most prominent environmental activists and legal attack dogs. At this point she’s a practiced speechmaker, and she came to Washington in April ready to hold forth on problems with global water access, the subject of “Last Call at the Oasis,” a new documentary in which she appears as a commentator.

Slickly produced but conventionally liberal, the film, opening nationally on Friday, relies exclusively on a handful of progressives and their narrow perspectives. Any solutions that fall outside those lines are all but ignored. Where property rights and privatization are mentioned, it’s only to dismiss them. Market pricing for water goes unmentioned, as do decades of labyrinthine state-level distribution rules and pricing controls that have contributed substantially to water shortages in America’s West.

Ms. Brockovich’s many loud, public crusades against corporations, meanwhile, have not exactly endeared her to Republicans.

But over the course of an hour-long interview, many of this liberal hero’s complaints focus on the Environmental Protection Agency — and their overseers in the Obama administration.

When it comes to environmental cleanup, Ms. Brockovich declares, “The EPA is absent.” Asked whether the White House bears any responsibility for the agency’s failures, she responds, “I don’t think the current administration has done as much environmentally as I’d hoped or thought they’d do.”

While some of Ms. Brockovich’s complaints come from the left, there are times when she sounds more like one of the EPA’s Republican critics.

“With the EPA shoving more policies down industry’s throat, you can’t get them to comply with what’s on the books,” she says of the agency’s pile-it-on approach to regulation. “You almost set them up into a position where they cannot comply.”

“I’m not going to sit here and vilify industry,” she says. “I will not do it. I think they have an opportunity to do the right thing. I’m not going to blame it all on government either. But they have to admit their failures.”

Conversations with government officials, she says, can be incredibly frustrating: “It’s like, my God, I feel like I’m talking to a 2-year-old.”

Yet when it comes to specifics, Ms. Brockovich is less than forthcoming. She says she supports streamlining agency rules, suggesting that the EPA call a “timeout” on many regulations. But when asked which rules she’d support putting on hold, she responds with a lengthy answer that doesn’t manage to name a single rule she’d like to see suspended.

It’s a pattern in her responses. Ask Ms. Brockovich a question, any question, and she’s likely to respond with a discursive rant about the barriers she sees to clean water access, about the lack of effective action she sees on water pollution, about her endless frustration with the politics of environmental regulation. Sometimes she literally pounds the table in front of her. Occasionally she drops a well-placed four letter word for emphasis. Always she circles back to favorite themes and topics.

Superfund sites — areas designated as contaminated and hazardous by the EPA — come up frequently, as does a sort of calculated nonpartisan populist outrage. “We have 30,000 Superfund sites that aren’t cleaned,” she complains several times.

Despite her long history of pitting communities against businesses, she tries to stay above the fray. “It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue, is it? It’s all of our issue. It’s a human rights issue. We all need water. And we all have a pollution problem. And we can all see it,” she says. “I really think that it is time, in my perspective, that we come into a new socially conscious world, that government and industry both sit down with the people. This is where we have a problem.”

Ms. Brockovich, who reportedly profited handsomely off the $330 million out-of-court settlement with PG&E, is clearly invested in playing up the existence of the problem. But it may not be the health hazard she warns of. A 2010 study by John Morgan, a professor of epidemiology at Loma Linda University in California, found no evidence that the town of Hinkley suffered from unusually high cancer rates.

But like a true movie hero, Ms. Brockovich insists that only she knows the truth. Washington lives “in a bubble,” she says, and doesn’t realize the extent of the environmental damage throughout the nation. Which is why she’s around. “I can tell you what’s going on out there,” she says. “I’m in it every day.



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