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Published on Saturday, April 1, 2000 in the Boston Globe
Opening In A Toxics Case Near You, Erin Brokovich
by Raphael Lewis
Her face launched a Hollywood blockbuster, and her brains helped wangle a $333 million legal settlement from a giant utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Corp.

Now, Erin Brockovich, portrayed by Julia Roberts on 2,800 movie screens nationwide, has set her sights on the Salem Harbor Station, a PG&E-owned plant that has earned a spot on a ''Filthy Five'' list of the worst polluting plants in Massachusetts.

This time, Brockovich says, it's personal.

''For me, PG&E has a proven pattern of deceit,'' Brockovich said in a telephone interview yesterday, referring to the California case depicted in ''Erin Brockovich.'' ''So anytime I come across a facility of theirs where people say they're getting sick, call me jaded, but I automatically believe them.''

But PG&E officials say they are working hard to clean the Salem plant, which many local residents believe has caused widespread illness.

Brockovich hopes to meet with local activists soon, but has put off a visit planned later this month because an attorney in the law firm where Brockovich works has fallen ill.

Even from her home base in California, the addition of Brockovich to the local controversy has already altered the playing field in Salem. That's because Brockovich has stolen the hearts of millions with her David-and-Goliath life story.

Then a single mother with no money in the bank, Brockovich took a low-paying job as a clerk at a law firm and by hard work and her strong personality developed a toxic liability case affecting hundreds of sick and politically powerless residents of a town in California. It's a story that has entranced the country, selling $56 million in tickets in two weeks.

But if her chief weapons were once a wardrobe of revealing clothing, the tenacity of a pit bull, and working-class charm, Brockovich has a new arrow in her quiver: star power. By lending her now-famous hand to local activists in Salem, Brockovich hopes to raise awareness of their cause and perhaps of the potential risks of living near a power plant.

''I can still go incognito, in a wig, if I want,'' Brockovich said. ''Instead of wearing a plunging neckline, I'll wear a turtleneck. But the media is an incredibly powerful force. If, because of this movie, I can help people, I can be glad for that. I think this could actually enhance my ability to get the message out.''

Not surprisingly, the members of Healthlink, a coalition of about 1,000 people who live near the Salem Harbor Station, are thrilled that Brockovich has chosen to help them.

''This gives us encouragement,'' said Lori Ehrlich, a resident of Marblehead and one of Healthlink's leaders. ''We feel like we're finally being heard. It gives us credibility, because we've been at this for two years and suddenly everybody is listening to us. And a lot of that was from the speculation that Erin was going to help.''

It was Ehrlich who first got Brockovich interested in the Salem Harbor Station, a 1950s-era coal- and oil-burning electricity generating plant that PG&E purchased two years ago. The way Ehrlich tells it, she heard that a movie was coming out that detailed how Brockovich helped the people of the California town of Hinkley, where a PG&E natural gas-pumping plant was polluting ground water with a toxic form of chromium.

She called Brockovich, and the two of them hit it off immediately.

''Lori Ehrlich compels me,'' Brockovich said. ''She's intelligent. She's persistent. What's the worst that could happen from me helping her? Even if we lose, I might actually get people in that area to think a little more about their health, about having that lump checked out. That's the point.''

Also fueling her interest is the fact that Brockovich herself has a smorgasbord of ailments - including unexplained rashes, neurological problems, and headaches - all of which she believes she contracted while investigating PG&E's California plants.

But a spokeswoman for PG&E said the company is not concerned in the slightest that Brockovich has joined the battle against the Salem plant.

''We've had a commitment from the beginning to make substantial reductions in our emissions,'' said Lisa Franklin, who is based in Boston and speaks for the corporation's interests in the Northeast. ''We are following through on that, and no special appearance is going to change that.''

Franklin went on to say that the movie, while potentially damaging to PG&E's reputation, ''is a dramatization.''

''Ultimately, we will be judged on how well we operate the Salem Harbor Station and on how well we follow through on our commitments to protecting health and safety,'' she said.

Ehrlich and her comrades in Healthlink argue that PG&E has fallen well short of protecting the public's health and safety. The group contends that the plant, which is exempt from the 1977 federal Clean Air Act because it predates the law, contributes to a higher incidence of cancer, asthma, heart disease, and other ailments. They have called on state leaders to force all of the state's older power plants to conform to the standards that newer plants must meet or, short of that, to make them clean up much more extensively.

Franklin says the group is misinformed, that state officials have checked out the plant and found no link with the health problems of area residents.

Brockovich and the law firm where she works as director of environmental research have pledged to find out exactly who is right and who is wrong in the debate.

Recently, Edward Masry, a partner at the firm, dispatched an investigator to teach area residents how to take air-quality samples, using a device the firm had designed for such purposes.

But if star-struck locals are hoping to catch a glimpse of Brockovich anytime soon, they may have to content themselves with photos. This week, Masry, the firm's lead attorney depicted by Albert Finney in the movie, fell gravely ill, forcing the duo to put off their visit.

''I'll still analyze the data they send me personally,'' Brockovich said. ''I absolutely believe in this work. It's not about the money anymore. I truly believe, and I don't think I'm a crusader or a radical for saying it, that, my God, chemicals make you sick. This is not a joke.''

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company


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