The power of one
Erin Brockovich shares her powerful secrets to success with biofuels supporters
ALTOONA — Is your fuel killing you? It was no accident the 2020 Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit raised this provocative question right before consumer advocate Erin Brockovich took the stage.
“This is a price we shouldn’t be willing to pay, especially when there are accessible, affordable options,” said Carol Werner, director emeritus and senior policy fellow with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute in Washington, D.C., who spoke in favor of ethanol.
Ethanol reduces aromatics, a pleasant-sounding term for dangerous air toxins like benzene in gasoline. Benzene is a well-established cause of cancer in humans that can trigger acute myeloid leukemia, noted Steffen Mueller, principal economist with the University of Illinois at Chicago Energy Resources Center.
Ethanol offers a safe alternative. Mueller cited studies using a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air-quality model that predicts pollutant concentrations near expressways.
“The data show a reduction of 1,200 cancer cases nationwide” when high-octane ethanol is used, Mueller said.
Stories like this need to be shared, emphasized Brockovich during the 2020 Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit on January 16 at The Meadows Events & Conference Center in Altoona.
“You’re in an uphill battle, but I’m on your side,” she said.
Fighting back against toxic water, toxic air
Brockovich became world-famous practically overnight when the Hollywood movie named after her debuted in 2000. The film tells the story of how Brockovich, a law-firm secretary in her early 30s in the 1990s, worked tirelessly to get justice for the people of Hinkley, California, a tiny farming community northeast of Los Angeles.
In the 1990s, Hinkley residents learned that their groundwater was polluted with chromium 6, a cancer-causing heavy metal. It had seeped into the water after Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG & E) dumped chromium 6, a rust inhibitor, into unlined ponds in the 1950s and 1960s. The polluted water caused a variety of serious health problems for local residents. After Brockovich and the Los Angeles law firm where she worked got involved in the matter, residents ended up winning a $333-million settlement with PG & E.
Brockovich has described this as a David-and-Goliath victory. It has many parallels to the renewable fuel industry.
“It’s not okay to drink polluted water, and it’s not ok to suck in polluted air,” Brockovich said. “But we can’t wait for Superman or a federal agency to come in and save us. We need to start making a difference in our own backyard.”
Expect pushback when you challenge an established competitor like the petroleum industry, she stressed.
“I understand your fight. When you think outside the box, be prepared for a shove back into the box. It can be exhausting, but don’t give up now,” she said.
Dyslexic disruptor learns life lessons
Brockovich said the tools she used to help win the PG & E lawsuit are effective in a variety of settings, because they are based on basic human values. This includes persistence, a lesson she first learned growing up as the youngest of four children in a close-knit, middle-class family in Lawrence, Kansas.
“My mom, a journalist, always said, ‘You’ve got to find that stick-tuitiveness,’ Erin,” said Brockovich, who struggled in school due to her dyslexia.
Her mother’s encouragement, combined with support from a caring teacher, made all the difference. This teacher had noted that while Brockovich failed her written tests, she clearly understood the information, based on her contributions to class discussions. The teacher suggested an experiment. Instead of giving Brockovich a written test, she’d give her the test orally by asking her the questions.
Brockovich knew every answer and got an A+.
“My teacher didn’t degrade me,” Brockovich said. “She opened herself up to another way to present something to me that she knew I knew. What that did for my self-esteem was unbelievable.”
Brockovich credits her father, an industrial engineer, with teaching her about lies, coverups and the importance of honesty. She learned these lessons the hard way after skipping school one day in high school.
“I got caught and told him a lie,” she recalled.
As a punishment, her father grounded Brockovich for the whole semester, suspending her phone privileges, dating opportunities and a planned trip to Chicago.
While she was furious at the time, Brockovich now shares the letter her father wrote to her following this incident while he was on trip to Lincoln, Nebraska. He told her there would be many trips in her future, and most of them would be more fun than the one to Chicago. He also told her to accept her punishment as an adult.
“Remember, your mom and I love you very much, and we expect you to develop into an honest and respected woman,” her father wrote.
Focus on the 4 L’s
Understanding Brockovich’s own history fits her philosophy of how to effectively tackle challenges like polluted water and toxic air emissions.
“First, we need to look back to see how far we’ve come, and then we need to understand where we’re going,” Brockovich said. “We’re not going to make progress if we can’t see the big picture.”
That means focusing on the 4 “L’s,” including:
• Logic. Keep asking logical questions, along with using science and common sense to make a strong case for biofuels. When Brockovich started uncovering evidence proving that PG &E had contaminated the water around Hinkley, California, her opponents attacked her. “‘You’re not a doctor, scientist or lawyer,’ they said,” Brockovich noted. “I replied, ‘I don’t have to be any of that to be human and use common sense.'”
• Leverage. Fighting big oil is daunting, Brockovich noted. “You and I can’t do it alone, but we can as a community. The power of the collective is unstoppable.”
• Loyalty. Think of a football game where you remain loyal to your team. Don’t be surprised when your team advances the ball 5 yards, only to be pushed back 10 years in the next play. Keep moving forward. “It’s your stick-tuitiveness that helps you stay in the game so you can ultimately win,” Brockovich said.
• Love. It’s essential to know your why, especially when the going gets tough. “Why do you do this? Your why is your love for your family, your country and the future of your planet,” Brockovich said. “My why is my grandchildren. It’s all about the legacy we’re leaving for future generations.”
Never forget that positive change begins at the local level, Brockovich added.
“I believe in the power of ‘we the people.’ I’m here to help keep pushing your industry into the future,” she said.