You likely know Erin Brockovich’s name because of the eponymous 2000 Hollywood film about her work in the early nineties uncovering Pacific Gas and Electric’s illegal discharge of the highly toxic chemical hexavalent chromium in the water of Hinkley, California. Julia Roberts played Brockovich and memorably portrayed the young legal assistant’s dogged pursuit of details, a trait that ultimately resulted in a $333 million settlement from the power company, the largest direct-action settlement in history. In the wake of the film, Roberts won an Academy Award for best actress, and Brockovich’s name became a verb: to Erin Brockovich someone was to fully, mercilessly expose them as a bad guy.
Now 60 years old, Brockovich is a full-time environmental advocate, and in the nearly three decades since the Hinkley case, she says things have gotten worse. No one is keeping tabs on a slew of chemical contaminants, like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and neonics; the government agencies that were supposed to regulate pollution have lost power and federal funding; and environmental laws enacted in the 1970s haven’t stood up to time and technology. Plus, climate change aggravates any kind of water stress.
Once she became a Technicolor touch point for exposing pollution, Brockovich started hearing from strangers of all stripes about their personal experiences: water coming out of the faucet flammable and brown, a teenage friend group riddled by cancer, children who had never had a drink from a tap because their city’s water source was so toxic. Those stories are the backbone of her new book, Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It, a readable mashup of self-help motivation and the science behind how pollutants move through water and impact human health.
We are living in a hyper-toxic time and no one, Brockovich says, is looking at the big picture of water pollution. Our infrastructure is crumbling and underfunded, the political system favors lobbyists, and the American industrial complex has been conditioned to ask for forgiveness rather than permission when it comes to polluting. And you can’t expect Erin Brockovich to come in and Erin Brockovich for you, so the onus is on individuals to band together and use the levers they can reach to watchdog and regulate pollution.
Brockovich says she wants the book to give people a pathway toward changing local government, which she sees as the most effective way to address a systemic problem that extends to the federal level.
“I think people are looking for permission, but what they really need is support,” she told me when I asked her why it felt important to write a book. “I go into these communities, and people say, ‘Oh, the EPA is coming in, they’ll get it sorted out.’ And I have to say, ‘I hate to tell you, but superman isn’t coming, and here’s what you can do.’” She’s been working on the book for years, but this summer, when public health and social justice are both at the forefront, her opinions about accountability and local political change feel particularly timely.
Much of Superman’s Not Coming is grim, because water pollution is deadly, sneaky, and prevalent in vulnerable areas like California’s Central Valley or Flint, Michigan, which have still other high-risk health factors, like air pollution and a lack of healthy food options. But Brockovich’s point is that it’s possible to change all that. She outlines cases where community organizers—often mothers worried about their sick children—have incited change. In Hannibal, Missouri, a group of local women fought to keep chloramines (cheap disinfectants that are linked to rashes, respiratory issues, and cancer) out of the city’s drinking water, taking over city council along the way. Residents of Tonganoxie, Kansas, united to prevent construction of a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant, which would dump waste into their water. Brockovich outlines how, according to the EPA, Tyson was the second-biggest waterway polluter in the country from 2010 to 2014, just ahead of the Department of Defense, and many of the pollutants it releases aren’t regulated or measured. In both of those cases, and the rest of the stories she outlines, if locals hadn’t lobbied, pollutants would have spread through the rivers and water pipes largely unnoticed until it was much too late. “Chemistry and physics say we can cut back on chemicals, but we have to really change human behavior,” Brockovich says. “I think that, as a society, we’ve been lulled to sleep.”
It’s not just a small-town issue either; less than 1 percent of chemicals on the market have been fully tested for human health, and their impacts show up all over. After the movie, when Brockovich began getting calls from other communities about suspected toxins and corresponding issues, each time she heard about five people with similar disease patterns, she put a red dot on a map. Today most of the map is speckled red, with tens of thousands of dots. “This has been a system-wide failure over decades,” she says. “We feel out of control.” She says that after watching Pacific Gas and Electric cut corners and try to cover up spills and plumes, she’s started to notice negligence patterns, and there’s no national database for those toxic hot spots.
“We put the chemical in the water system and then try to deal with it when we find out there’s a problem,” she says. “That is ass-backward. We’re relying on old, antiquated policies and ideas that we put into place years ago.”
Brockovich is a vocal, no-nonsense writer—Roberts might even have downplayed her fire in the movie—and the book is most interesting and relevant when she’s focused and mad. The tales she tells show what we’re up against when it comes to clean water. But now, when it feels like irrecoverable environmental issues are ever present, they also demonstrate where change has happened and how addressing water issues at the source can make a big difference all the way down the chain.
“We’re a land of laws, and we need major reform in some of our environmental laws,” she says. “We’re not asking you to wipe out the Constitution, we’re asking for reform on an issue that’s impacting all of us.”