Real-Life Erin Brockovich at Work in Australia
The woman responsible for taking on and defeating PG&E; in a case alleging the company contaminated the public drinking water in Hinkley, southern California — portrayed in the 2000 Oscar-winning film Erin Brockovich by Julia Roberts — is at it again. She has brought her grit and tenacity to Yarloop — a small city in Western Australia that is home to a local refinery owned by Alcoa — where she is currently considering the merits of starting a class action suit on behalf of its 160 residents. The residents claim that Alcoa's Wagerup refinery, which is responsible for processing bauxite into alumina (the basis for aluminum), is responsible for causing a swathe of illnesses in the local population — including nosebleeds, nausea, skin rashes and others.
Though she refuses to visit Yarloop in person — explaining that she has "no intention of going anywhere near a facility which is leaking contaminants and could be lethal for me" — she has sent members of her team there to investigate the situation. In a speech to the city's residents, she said: "We think we live in a big world but it's really smaller than you think."Brockovich took up the challenge after receiving an e-mail from a resident. She explained that the symptoms described to her in the e-mail reminded her of her original case against PG&E.; "We've got to find a balance between industry and people because neither is going to go away," she said.
While Alcoa has predictably denied all allegations that the refinery is unsafe — claiming a series of independent scientific inquiries had shown it to have "concentrations of refinery emissions ... well within internationally accepted environmental and health guidelines" — several of its workers have complained of suffering unexplained health problems as a result of inhaling the noxious fumes. In fact, several of the company's retired workers, who suffered from a range of illnesses, received payouts though Alcoa denied any liability.
The feisty lawyer insists she has no intention of forcing the closure of the company: she just intends on holding them accountable to the affected residents. Will she be able to replicate the success she experienced in her career-defining case? If the motto of the law firm she's liaised with to take on Alcoa is any indication — its website states: "Tough case? We're tougher." — she's at least ready for a good fight.