STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The activist Erin Brockovich is back.
(Soundbite of movie, "Erin Brockovich")
Ms. JULIA ROBERTS (Actress): (As Erin Brockovich) These people don't dream about being rich. They dream about being able to watch their kids swim in a pool without worrying that they'll have to have a hysterectomy at the age of 20.
INSKEEP: That's Julia Roberts playing the combative single mom turned environmentalist. There's not a sequel of the movie coming. This is a sequel for the real Erin Brockovich, who's gone back to the small California town of Hinkley. That's where she fought on behalf of residents whose water supply was contaminated by the toxic chemical chromium 6.
P G & E, the California utility, that used the chemical there, paid out a huge settlement and promised to clean-up the contamination. But 24 years later, residents say their water supply is still contaminated and that the contamination is spreading. NPRs Carrie Kahn reports.
Ms. ROBERTA WALKER: Hey, again.
CARRIE KAHN: Roberta Walker calls out to one of her three horses on her ranch in Hinkley, a windy town high in the Mojave Desert about 150 miles north of Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of gates opening)
KAHN: Walker used to live about four miles from here. But back in 1993 P G & E bought that house after discovering high levels of chromium 6 contamination in the water wells. PG&E used the toxic chemical in the 1950s and '60s to clean equipment at its local station.
Walker wanted to stay in Hinkley, so she picked this seven acres of dry brushland to build a home for herself and one for her daughter's family. She said she was told the plume of contaminated ground water would never migrate this far.
Ms. WALKER: They were taking care of it, they were containing it. Then...
KAHN: You thought you were safe here.
Ms. WALKER: I thought I was safe, 100 percent, I thought I was safe. Why would I think differently, why would I bring my kids here if I was not safe.
KAHN: But this summer, tests on Walker's wells showed that they were contaminated with chromium 6. Walker, who has had numerous tumors and cysts removed, and a hysterectomy said she was stunned.
Ms. WALKER: Oh my god, they're doing it again. And I just I almost had a - I couldn't believe it. And I says and I called Erin. I just called her right then and there. And I said matter of life or death I need you to call me.
KAHN: Brockovich came right away. The two have been friends since the early 1990s when Brockovich, then a legal assistant, with a bodacious style and wardrobe came to Hinkley and began a year's long fight against P G & E. I caught up with the two of them as they grabbed a quick lunch at a Chili's in nearby Barstow. There are no restaurants in Hinkley. Walker says the town is the same, but Brockovich sure has changed.
Ms. WALKER: When I saw her a couple of weeks ago I said, Erin, where are your boobs and your heels. And she goes, I'm older now and wiser.
KAHN: Is that true?
Ms. ERIN BROCKOVICH: Wise enough not to trust PG&E that's for sure.
KAHN: In 1996, Brockovich helped win a record $333 million settlement from P G & E on behalf of hundreds of Hinkley residents. Brockovich says she can't believe after all this time the contamination has spread. She blames state and local regulators for not supervising PG&E's clean-up, but mostly blames the utility.
Ms. BROCKOVICH: PG&E are the ones that know where that plume's moving, they have the money, they've got the experts, they've got the maps. They should have been warning these people a long time ago. The plume is coming your way and you've got to go.
KAHN: For its part, PG&E says it has been closely monitoring the contamination and has had a lot of success containing it. At PG&E's Hinkley office, spokesman Jeff Smith says he understands that many residents are anxious, but he says it's not clear that the contamination plume is growing.
Mr. JEFF SMITH (Spokesman, PG&E): I think it's a slight over simplification to simply characterize it as that. Because of subsurface water movements, sometimes you see a slight expansion in one area where you see a contraction in the other area. But we are absolutely committed to the cleanup of the plume and the control of the area.
KAHN: Smith says the utility is also willing to talk with any resident about purchasing their property if they feel they need to move out of Hinkley.
Unidentified Woman: Can I just ask you to take like half a step back, that way everyone can see?
KAHN: At a recent meeting, hundreds of Hinkley residents packed the auditorium of the town's only school to get an update on the contamination from the local water board. Many people, like Jonathan Himmelrick, were angry.
Mr. JONATHAN HIMMELRICK: My boy's got a messed up ear, I mean, it's from a birth defect, you know, I mean it's not even there he has no ear on one side, my stomach's messed up. I've been stupid for eight years of my oldest daughter's life for letting her drink that water, you know. It's sad and we never notified about nothing.
KAHN: PG&E representatives were there too. They were explaining the latest clean-up efforts, signing up residents for free water well testing and recruiting anyone interested in serving on a community advisory board. Erin Brockovich showed up too. With a crowd surrounding her she unleashed on PG&E.
Ms. BROCKOVICH: It's still not cleaned up, you're still dodging the ball, you're still not telling the truth and you're still poisoning people. What do you want me to say? They're pathetic.
KAHN: She says it might take legal action to get the utility to do right by these people. And she's not the only one thinking that way. There were several lawyers roaming the meeting too. They ran out of business cards within the first few minutes.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.