Erin Fights Goliath

Erin Brockovich is a dyslexic legal investigator with no technical expertise. So she tends to trust her gut. In 1992, her gut told her that something at Pacific Gas and Electric's Hinkley Compressor Station was making folks in that California desert town sick. Four years later a court found that residents suffered contamination by chromium VI, or hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen that PG&E had added to its towers for years to inhibit corrosion. PG&E agreed to pay the injured a record $333 million to settle the suit that is now the basis for the movie "Erin Brockovich."

But Brockovich didn't stop there. In 1994, she had a hunch there was similar trouble at another PG&E facility in Kettleman, Calif. She and her boss, L.A. attorney Ed Masry, drove up to the plant in the San Joaquin Valley to have a look. They inspected four huge towers used to cool natural gas before it is piped throughout the state--and the nearby employee housing. Masry saw no evidence of contamination. But Brockovich noticed something. The needles of the area's tamarisk trees were coated with the same white powder she had seen in Hinkley. Next, she headed for the Water Board, where she discovered a 1964 letter from the Department of Interior notifying the utility of excessive chromium VI in the well at Kettleman. From her work at Hinkley, Brockovich also knew that exposure to the toxin could cause a variety of ailments ranging from nosebleeds to lung cancer. Brockovich spent $10,000 copying every document she found.

Today 900 former residents and workers at the PG&E plants are suing for personal injuries they allege resulted from the contamination of their water, ground and air with chromium VI. The Kettleman plaintiffs contend that the mist spewing continuously from the company's cooling towers was laced with chromium. PG&E refuses to discuss the case, but in company documents, it acknowledges that the well was contaminated with up to 17.5 parts per million of chromium (the allowable drinking standard is .10 ppm).

Plaintiffs say that the contaminated well was constantly used for drinking and bathing. Ruth Ann Vaughn spent 10 years at Kettleman as a child and remembers hot summers there fondly. "I'd hook my dog to my red wagon and park under the mists from the cooling towers," says Vaughn, 47, who now suffers from Crohn's disease. Everybody at Kettleman complained about their health, she says, but they thought the nosebleeds were due to the dry weather; other complaints were put down to hay fever.

After investigating Kettleman for nine months, Masry and Brockovich believed they had enough evidence against PG&E to take the case to a jury. The trial is set for November. Erin has a personal stake in the outcome. She's been diagnosed with a benign growth in her nose. Her gut says she was exposed to chromium VI while on the PG&E sites. This time she hopes she's wrong.