In the public’s mind, Erin Brockovich is Julia Roberts. A movie-star in her prime: Scrappy, busty, and working to save her neighbors in Hinkley, California from evil corporations who deny their part in heavily contaminating water sources. For two decades, our image of who this woman is has been directed by Steven Soderbergh into a neat, 130 minute story with a happy ending.
It’s the same way many view the 2014 Flint water crisis. This time the story played out in the media, with news producers at the helm instead of a Palme d’Or-winning director. The water was bad, lead-infested, we heard. Then-President Barack Obama went to Flint. He drank the water on camera, and we moved on. A neat news cycle, maybe with a happy ending? That part was unclear, but the problem had been highlighted, and it was easy to trust that it was now being taken care of. Except that it wasn’t—six years later problems are still arising.
That’s what the real Erin Brockovich, now 60, wants you to know. Federal oversight, by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior, she says, isn’t going to fix America’s environmental problems. Outdated rules like 1974’s Safe Drinking Water Act aren’t effective. The national attention span does not last long enough to see a true problem through. When the cameras turned off and news anchors left their posts on the Gulf Coast after 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, residents were left to fend for themselves. No superhero in sight.
In her latest book, Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It, Brockovich argues that the only way to institute real change and protect American waterways is through prolonged grassroots and community-based action.
“This is what I learned on the ground with the people: That whether we got too comfortable or complacent, we thought that whoever it may be or whatever it may be would come and fix this,” she told Fortune. “It’s been a process for us to slowly wake up. We need to look to ourselves to rise up.”
The following conversation has been lightly edited.
It’s been six years since the Flint water crisis came to national attention. How does something this big fizzle away with no concrete action?
Erin Brockovich: I’d start with what I learned when the film came out (Erin Brockovich, 2000). There’s a big sensational moment, and things quiet down, but the emails still come in. Hinkley wasn’t one place; there are Hinkleys everywhere. I’ve felt really frustrated out there with some of the media: They’re going to get a sound bite and then when this is no longer headline sensational news, these people are still left with this. And then Flint happened. It was a very unnerving moment for everybody because we think these agencies are here to protect us. But where were they? Flint was a moment, but it goes away because the news cycle changes.
The rest of us don’t want to think it could happen to us, even though it could. We think that there are still agencies in place to protect us, and over many years policies were written and designed in ways for us not to find out that they aren’t.
Let’s talk about those lead and copper rules in Flint. The rule states that you only have to test for lead once every four years and that you can average the samples. That means they’re going to miss a lot of data sets. You have to reform these antiquated environmental policies, and our current administration isn’t a fan of environmental protections. Water is one of those massive things, like infrastructure, where the cost is so extreme that people push stuff aside or assume that someone else will fix it, but they won’t, it’s up to us.
Do you think oversight agencies have become too politicized to take long term, meaningful action?
We can blame anybody and everybody over the course of 50 years for what went wrong, but that’s not going to get us anywhere. We just need to recognize that it doesn’t matter because the problems are already here, and we need to figure out what our solution is moving forward. I find that companies don’t always like the solution because they think it hurts their finances, but nothing could be further from the truth. We need to rebuild our infrastructure and put people back to work. These are the things that made America great that are now in deep peril. We need to just cut through the bullcrap. Water pollution is here, and I don’t care what side of the aisle you fall on. We must come together on one simple issue that makes or breaks every one of us.
There seem to be two ideas here: One is that we need the federal government to act quickly and on a large scale and perhaps partner with corporations and the other is…
You don’t. You can do it at a local level.
Right. I was going to say that the other idea is that it’s unlikely that will happen in the near future and so there are things that can be done within local communities to protect the environment and waterways. Do you view these as a stopgap measure?
No, it has to be done locally. I think what happens is that at the federal level the umbrella is so big that it would be impossible for them to get anything done without the involvement of the people and the local city council.
I encourage people to go to their city council meetings. We’ve seen the power of people showing up in numbers to those meetings. Sometimes these municipalities might not know what’s going on, and they have a lot of power to reform or change rules. Let’s fix the problems at ground zero. Every municipality in America should do that. You can solve the issue nationally, but at a local level, in your own backyard, [you can act] instead of waiting for someone to come do it.
So what should people do?
Just make the decision: It’s my water; it’s my backyard. Get involved and decide to learn about it. Just make a phone call. It’s that simple.
Look at Poughkeepsie, New York. The people there noticed a change in their water quality and they called. It turns out there was an ammonia feed going into the tap water, and when they turned it off, the phone stopped ringing. They turned the feed back on, and people started calling again to say, “What’s going on?”
There’s a change happening. That’s one of the very first acts that you can take that you may feel is little, but it’s not. You have to be involved, and you have to be proactive. If you think something’s wrong, say something. Because when you do, you learn something, and knowledge is power. You take one small act, but it’s contagious. It’s very empowering.
Is this an easy thing for communities that have large minority populations to do? Are they as heard or listened to?
Environmental racism has been here for a long time; a lot of socioeconomic factors come into play.
Even in Hinkley, what always stood out in my mind was people saying, “You’re not a doctor. You’re not a lawyer. You’re not a scientist. You’re running around in a short skirt. Why should anybody believe you?”
I didn’t think I had to be any of those to be human. There’s this suppression that happens in these communities where people are told that what they’re seeing and experiencing isn’t real, and it’s very frustrating. Eventually people get exhausted, and they think that this is just their lot in life. You’ve got to connect with those people who are at ground zero and know what they’re saying is really happening. They just want to live their lives; they’re not making up crazy stories.There’s a gigantic disconnect between our leaders and what’s happening. But in all of these counties there is that one person—you are out there. Call your municipality 15 times a day. Call us. We’ll get the media involved and put the spotlight on them.
WIth movements across the country to defund the police, many Americans are now realizing how essential their city councils are and how much their local government can do and impact their everyday life….
Absolutely, and you do see groups realizing that you can make great change at a local level. It is a matter of us getting to the city council because sometimes they don’t know, and we need to show up and tell them. Imagine if every community at every city council level did that. You would initiate a change in your own backyard, and let it spread across the nation.
You’ve been at this for so long, and it seems like a never ending battle. How do you avoid feeling burnt out? How do you stay positive?
We all are living in a crazy world, and in order to not spin out with it, you’ve got to stop and reboot. You can’t continue to be motivated if you can’t breathe. I allow myself to get frustrated, to cry, to say, “peace out, don’t bother me.” I stop picking up my phone calls and don’t feel guilty that I dropped out for a few days. I forgive myself for not being able to be superwoman.
A few years ago I had a moment where I thought I couldn’t do this anymore. I didn’t know how I was going to make progress, and it felt too big. But then my first grandchild was born, and it reinvigorated me to fight for a better environment. It’s a no-brainer for me. It’s not science; it’s just a real basic simple fact: This planet is our home. We owe it to our home and our planet where we reside to be reinvigorated. She’s tired, and maybe we should pick up the torch a little.
So when you’re tired, be tired. It’s okay. We aren’t perfect. We do get tired; we’re all feeling exhausted. Allow that to happen, and then get out there and start working again tomorrow.
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