Erin Brockovich is a 2000 drama film which dramatizes the story of Erin Brockovich's first fight against the American West Coast energy giant Pacific Gas and Electric Company known as PG&E. The film was directed by Steven Soderbergh and featured actress Julia Roberts in the lead role for which she subsequently won the Academy Award for Best Actress. It is based on a true story and the real Erin Brockovich has a cameo appearance as a waitress named Julia. The original music score was composed by Thomas Newman.
The film was produced and distributed in North America by Universal Pictures, and was distributed overseas by Columbia Pictures.
The case alleged contamination of drinking water with hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium(VI), in the southern California town of Hinkley. At the center of the case is a facility called the Hinkley Compressor Station, part of a natural gas pipeline connecting to the San Francisco Bay Area constructed in 1952. Between 1952 and 1966, PG&E used hexavalent chromium to fight corrosion in the cooling tower. The wastewater dissolved the hexavalent chromium from the cooling towers and was discharged to unlined ponds at the site. Some of the wastewater percolated into the groundwater, affecting an area near the plant approximately two miles long and nearly a mile wide. The case was settled in 1996 for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct action lawsuit in U.S. history.
Chromium(VI) is known to be toxic and carcinogenic, and the 0.58 ppm in the groundwater in Hinkley exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level of 0.10 ppm currently set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. However, while it has long been known that chromium(VI) is carcinogenic when ingested via inhalation, drinking water laced with chromium(VI) is widely believed to be less toxic; some experts argue that the exposures at Hinkley were too low to cause health effects, while others respond that there were too many gaps in the data on chromium to dismiss the Hinkley residents' case. When Harvard's School of Public Health gave Brockovich an award in 2005, scientists were divided on the merits of her work. National Institutes of Health researchers announced May 16, 2007 there is strong evidence that hexavalent chromium causes cancer in laboratory animals when it is consumed in drinking water. The two-year study conducted by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) shows that animals given hexavalent chromium for three months developed malignant tumors on their pituitary gland. The report warns that extrapolation of these results to other species, including characterization of hazards and risks to humans, requires analyses beyond the intent of the report. Nevertheless, health care professionals agree that the current data on chromium(VI) are sufficient to justify strict legal limits on the hexavalent chromium concentration in water, and that neglect of these limits imposes a major health threat on the affected population.
Working with Thousand Oaks, California-based lawyer Edward L. Masry, Brockovich went on to participate in other anti-pollution lawsuits. One accuses Whitman Corporation of chromium contamination in Willits, California. Another lawsuit, which lists 1,200 plaintiffs, alleges contamination near PG&E's Kettleman Hills Compressor Station in Kings County, California, along the same pipeline as the Hinkley site. The Kettleman suit settled for $335 million in 2006. After experiencing problems with mold contamination in her own home in the Conejo Valley, Brockovich became a prominent activist and educator in this area as well. Today, Brockovich is a noted speaker in demand for U.S. and international speaking engagements.
Her story is the topic of a feature film, Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts in the title role. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing in a Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Roberts won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Erin Brockovich. Erin Brockovich herself had a cameo role as a waitress named Julia R. (in reference to Julia Roberts playing Erin).