Environmental Law and the Real Erin Brockovich

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hug treeWho the Real Erin Brockovich?

In the 90s, a small town in Hinkley, California made headlines after it was discovered that something sinister was going on in the city. The people there had settled into their own way of life, but things in the town were quickly changing. A company by the name of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) began installing thousands of underground pipes, which functioned as groundwater monitoring wells.

In 1996, the town famously won a massive case against PG&E when it was discovered that the utility company had dumped a chemical called chromium-6 into an unlined pond during the 50s and 60s. The chemical eventually seeped into the town’s groundwater and caused major health problems for residents. Rather than correct the problem, the company hid the issue and misled the community about the dangers associated with that specific type of chromium.

Led by Erin Brockovich, who was just a simple law clerk at the time, a group of residents eventually got together and won a huge direct-arbitration against Pacific Gas and Electric. The courts found the company was liable for dumping the dangerous chemical. The settlement from the company was at that time, the largest payout on record for a direct-action lawsuit. Eventually, the story was turned into an Oscar-winning film that starred Hollywood actress, Julia Roberts.

Many people assumed that was the end of the story, and that the residents of Hinkley were now back to living their normal lives. However, the area today is nothing short of a ghost town. Only a few houses even remain in the community, along with several abandoned buildings, and the notorious PG&E station which is connected to the town’s natural gas pipeline system.

In 2010, nearly 15 years after the settlement, another resident of the town found that chromium-6 levels in her drinking water were again reaching unsafe levels. After some quick snooping, she learned that an underground chromium-6 plume had been expanded, and was now affecting an additional 100 homes.

The discovery led to yet another battle with the utility company, which eventually initiated further cleanup efforts. The company also offered to buy out the remaining homes in the area. Though the settlement was enough for some people to pack up and start over, others had to consider the loss of their property values and chromium-related medical bills, and weigh that against the buyout offer. It was a numbers game to decide whether to take the offer or wait out the cleanup.

However, a 2014 feasibility study conducted by PG&E, found that to clean up the majority of the chromium would take between 11 and 50 years to complete.

All of the uncertainty surrounding the cleanup of the town is a major part of what residents believe is the reason why Hinkley is struggling to recover. In 2018, PG&E declared bankruptcy due to the wildfires that ravaged the state of California. As a result, it is uncertain how the terms of the Cleanup and Abatement Order in Hinkley will be affected.

The town’s legal team continues to fight to stop PG&E from being allowed to declare bankruptcy. A legal team that includes Hinkley’s number one advocate, Erin Brockovich.

What Happens when a Company Pollutes the Environment?

In Georgia, as in other states, if a company or person degrades the environment by polluting the air or contaminating the water and people are harmed, that company can be held responsible for the damage caused as a result of their negligence.

The company can be held responsible in a court of law for:

  • Personal injury (e.g., a person has extensive medical bills as a result of the negligent actions of the company)
  • Property damage (e.g., lake or river now unusable, ditch through backyard widened into a huge gully, or smell is so bad the homeowner can’t sit out on their porch)

In legal terms, people are protected under what’s known as the tort of private nuisance, which defends a person’s right to use and enjoy their own property. In the event that someone else interferes with this right, a person can take legal action against the other party.

It can be frustrating to own a home that you can’t enjoy. If you’re wondering if you have a valid private nuisance case or personal injury claim, contact the attorneys of the Butler Kahn. We have an experienced team to help review your options and give you the best representation available.

Picture of Matt Kahn
Matt Kahn is an Atlanta personal injury lawyer and a partner at the law firm Butler Kahn. Matt has dedicated his career to fighting for individuals and families who had been harmed by the negligence of others. At Butler Kahn, he has had the honor of helping families who have lost children in motor vehicle accidents and people who were critically injured. He helped a family secure a $45 million settlement to provide lifetime care for their son, who was critically injured in a motorcycle accident. Matt is a graduate of Emory University School of Law and has been recognized as a Super Lawyers’ Rising Star and by Best Lawyers as One to Watch. He has received an Avvo 10.0 Top Attorney rating. Connect with me on LinkedIn
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