Pressing On

Activist Erin Brockovich finds a new cause, right in her moldy backyard.

February 09, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

While the country was watching Julia Roberts portray class action lawsuit heroine Erin Brockovich in a 2000 movie of the same name, the real Erin Brockovich was up to her nostrils in mold.

Brockovich had moved into a million-dollar California home - 20 minutes from Malibu Beach - but couldn't understand why she couldn't shake a flu-like feeling. Finally, a doctor told her to undergo allergy tests. She was allergic to mold - the mold growing in, around and under her million-dollar toxic home. The irony was blinding.

Brockovich - scheduled to speak Monday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall - was on the verge of becoming famous thanks to Roberts' movie about a file clerk's efforts to lead one of the largest-ever class action toxic lawsuits. In 1996, the law firm of Masry and Vititoe won a $333 million suit against Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which had been found responsible for toxic chromium-6 leaking into the groundwater of Hinkley, Calif. More than 600 residents shared in the damages. The case was investigated by Brockovich, a single mother with no legal background, little formal education and a lot of nerve.

With a roomful of floral arrangements and caviar compliments of Roberts the day after she won the Academy Award for Erin Brockovich, the real E.B. was hopping mad with the builder of her home. How could a house be built with such defective water drainage? Brockovich wondered. A new cause was born, and again she was an underdog - her favorite breed of human.

Just like the world had learned about chromium-6, the world might now know the name of the mold, Stachybotrys. The toxic mold - sometimes called the "deadly black mold" - has been linked to acute lung bleeding and sudden death in infants, according to some studies.

Brockovich's friend and employer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney in the movie), kids his former file clerk about a movie sequel.

"Ed calls it, `Revenge of the Stachybotrys!' " she says. Brockovich, a 41-year-old Kansan, called last week from her home in southern California, where jackhammers could be heard tearing up her back yard and pool deck.

"It's a nightmare," she says. Rather than move, she and her husband decided to rid their home and lot of mold. She has hired a lawyer and has sued the builder to recoup her abatement costs. Known for her favorite slogan "Press On," Brockovich - homebody, activist, author, possible TV talk show host - presses on for a living:

Why would anyone mess with Erin Brockovich knowing what we know about Erin Brockovich?

I wasn't looking for this fight. I'm sitting here watching my house taken apart. It's inexcusable for a builder to build a home with these construction defects. This is why we see stories of people abandoning their homes.

I would like to see some laws changed, but I am not a lone ranger here. Thousands of American schools and homes were built that have mold problems.

You're really famous - in the last three months alone, your name is mentioned 935 times in newspapers worldwide.

It's weird. Fame is not what it's cracked up to be. There's more stress and expectations. I had this meltdown at work the other day. "If I hear my name one more time, I'm going to puke!" I yelled.

I have this bleeding heart for people who are suffering, but I can't get to every person. But if I don't, then it's perceived that fame really has gone to my head. I think saving the world single-handedly is way too much to ask of people.

What is your job title?

Director of Environmental Research. I still oversee toxic cases that come in at the law firm. We have a great team of people. My forte is document research. You got to have facts to make things happen.

Have we heard the last of chromium-6?

No. We have had several chromium-6 cases pop up.

You've been open about the fact you are dyslexic. What is less known is the fact you were Miss February in the International Dyslexia Foundation's 2001 calendar. What did you wear for the calendar?

A bustier with a blazer - that's usually how you'll find me (laughing). Having a disability, I always felt judged. The bustier and my wardrobe come from a part inside of me that also doesn't want to be labeled or judged. No matter how I dress, it's not a reflection of how I think or what I feel in my heart. I'm proud of myself. Also, I happen to like bustiers.

You have three children, and your oldest is how old now?

Matthew is 19 now. He's shipping out for basic training for the 82nd Airborne, Army. He's just a patriotic, loving soul.

Does he want to fight in Afghanistan?

He's mentioned it to me. I try not to think about it. But he's got basic training at Fort Bragg and that will take some time.

Did he like the movie?

He says it provided him the best pickup line he's ever used.

Are you ever on a plane and the in-flight movie is Erin Brockovich?

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