Brockovich’s Beverly Hills Blues

By Michael Fumento

Scripps Howard News Service, April 22, 2004
Copyright 2004 Scripps Howard, Inc.

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All Brockovich needs is a flying monkey.

Hard to believe it’s been four years since I first exposed Erin Brockovich as something other than the American sweetheart depicted by Hollywood. Since then I’ve continued to document the only green this "environmental crusader" cares about is cash even as I’ve continued to marvel at her ability to defy Lincoln’s alleged dictum about fooling all of the people all of the time. But she may finally have gone too far, in a town with that famous zip code of 90210.

To understand why Brockovich is singing the Beverly Hills Blues, you need to understand the litigation strategy of her and her boss, Ed Masry. Essentially, they identify a potential source of some sort of discharge that they claim is in some way harming some people in some area. Any type of harm.

Thus in the litigation depicted in Brockovich’s eponymous movie, all illnesses in Hinckley, Calif. – from nosebleeds to various cancers – were portrayed as resulting from a metal leaching into drinking water from a nearby power company facility. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency’s toxicology web site declares that no study has ever shown that the metal, chromium six, is harmful to humans when ingested, and many have shown it is not.

Last July, the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health concluded: "Exposure to chromium six in tap water via all plausible routes of exposure, at concentrations well in excess of the current EPA maximum contaminant level ... should not pose an acute or chronic health hazard to humans. These conclusions are consistent with those recently reached by a panel of experts convened by the State of California."

Sadly, the power company settled the case. Ed & Erin rarely win against those who fight back. The judge tosses the case before it goes to trial, the Brocko Bunch loses at trial or an appellate court overturns their trial-court victory.

Ed & Erin are always on the wrong side of the science and have demonstrated no exceptional legal skill. Rather, they’re master puppeteers of the media. They just pull those strings until the defendants decide it’s not worth the embarrassment.

Now it’s they who are being embarrassed. It was obvious from the start they had no case in Beverly Hills; indeed, I wrote as much before any suit was filed.

The suit, filed against a vast number of oil companies, the city of Beverly Hills and the school district, claims that oil wells on the campus of Beverly Hills High School have caused extraordinary high rates of three types of cancer among the approximately 11,000 alumni who attended between 1975 and 1997.

"These statistics are 20 times higher than the national average for these specific cancers," Brockovich told a credulous media, creating hysteria among former students and the parents of current ones. Masry told the Associated Press that it was 20 to 30 times higher.

"I have 300 cancers staring me in the face and an oil-production facility underneath the school," Brockovich told The Economist. "It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two fit together."

Better consult a rocket scientist, Erin.

A brightly-painted oil derrick on the property of Beverly Hills High.

Under a threat of contempt of court, her firm admitted it had no data indicating any excess of cancer at the school. Further, the Beverly Hills Courier reported that long after Brockovich’s "300 cancers" assertion, Masry had filed only 216 complaints. Just 94 concerned cancer. Judging from that, Beverly Hills High has the lowest cancer rate on the planet.

When the University of Southern California looked at the cancer rates of Beverly Hills alumni it found nothing unusual.

Brockovich also insisted that air samplings collected by a lab she’d hired found incredibly high levels of benzene, a human carcinogen. "When they came back I said I can’t believe this. So went four times, five times, six times. And each time we were getting the same results," Brockovich said.

But the local air-quality authority conducted its own tests and found no high levels of any toxic pollutant. It so happens that neither had Brockovich. Her lab’s data, which the city was forced to subpoena, showed benzene levels ranging from low to unmeasurable.

Since the Diabolical Duo don’t let minor inconveniences like facts get in the way, they’re unlikely to drop the suit. They’re still counting on the media to spook the defendants into settling. But Beverly Hills & Co. are hanging tough, and it looks like even a personal appearance by Julia Roberts can’t pull this one out for the bad guys.

But the question remains: At what point do the media finally say, "Fool me nine times, shame on you; fool me 10 times, shame on me."