Special report: Hinkley
The San Bernardino County Sun returns to the town made famous by the movie "Erin Brockovich" and now on the verge of collapse.
Hinkley's polluted groundwater -- and the movie "Erin Brockovich" -- propelled an unknown single mom into an international celebrity with considerable clout.

About two weeks after Erin Brockovich, 53, flew into the flat West Texas city of Midland -- where there was a chromium-6 contamination spill more concentrated than in the small town of Hinkley -- public health officials in that state began installing household water-purification systems in about 48 homes, said Sissy Sathre, a community activist in south Midland County.

The state action in 2009 possibly would have happened anyway. But Sathre has a different perspective:

"I don't think they wanted the publicity Erin Brockovich could bring ... she speeded things up a bit," Sathre said.

But back where it all started, a few current and former Hinkley residents feel that their plight made Brockovich famous, and then she abandoned them.

Brockovich, who lives in Agoura Hills, said she moved on because she thought that San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co., under the supervision of the state of California, had brought the polluted water problem under control.

Nearly two decades later, she sees Hinkley as a town lost to pollution and feels duped by PG&E, she said.

"All the delays, all the stalling, all the shell games are doing nothing but degrading the environment further and jeopardizing the health and welfare of countless people. It makes no sense," Brockovich said.

Back in the 1990s, Brockovich left after successfully leading an effort that forced the giant utility to pay $333 million in an out-of-court settlement to about 650 residents over the town's bad water.

These days, Brockovich continues to advocate for communities dealing with water issues.

"I get 10,000 emails a month from 120 countries and territories," Brockovich said in a recent interview.

Sathre, whose cry for help was one of those emails in 2009, said Brockovich responded in about 30 minutes.

"And she was out here three weeks later," Sathre said in a recent telephone interview.

Traveling is something Brockovich does a lot these days.

She has frequent speaking engagements and travels to far-flung pollution hot spots, which include stays in Australia, Italy and Japan. Greece will be a future visit.

"There is a big chromium-6 problem there," she said.

She matches people to law firms willing to champion their cause, and not all of her work is related to chromium-6.

She's been to India to speak to women on becoming whistle-blowers and she has gone to Switzerland at the request of businesses "who want to keep doing the right thing."

Brockovich was, however, recently forced to apologize for doing the wrong thing.

In June, she issued a public apology after she was arrested on suspicion of boating while intoxicated at Lake Mead, near Las Vegas.

Brockovich has been involved in what she calls another community about to be destroyed by water pollution. It's Weldon, Ill., where there is so much benzene in the groundwater that when samples were sent to a lab, the lab called and said, "we test water, not gasoline."

Benzene is a component of crude oil.

"We are going to have a huge health crisis unless we become more prevention- and solution-oriented," Brockovich said.