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Environmentalist Erin Brockovich Continues to Make Waves

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S Bence
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Brockovich shares a cartoon her dad sent her after the film that made her famous was released. Brockovich credits her parents for instilling stick-to-itiveness, honesty and respect in her life.

The activist was in Milwaukee last week to kick off UWM's Women Leaders Conference. Brockovich told its 500 attendees that she's gathering data to spur a national conversation about environmental and public health concerns.

Her platform is called Community Health Book. Brockovich says the initiative dates back to the case that made her famous.

Her exhaustive investigation of a power company poisoning the water in a small California town resulted in $333 million in damages for more than 600 residents. That experience led to Brockovich’s involvement in groundwater contamination complaints and environmental concerns around the world.

"When I began my work initially in California, I would get out a map of the community – the streets the parameters – and every family that I met who was sick, I would put a little dot and then I would know what particular diseases they had,” Brockovich says.

She says it didn’t take long to figure out 600 people in this small area had similar disease patterns. Since that time, Brockovich says she’s heard from people living in 126 countries around the world.

Three years ago, she starting mapping again – but this time digitally.

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Brockovich spoke in Milwaukee on March 20, 2015.

“Currently, there’s over 14,000 communities reporting to me, not to federal agencies,” Brockovich says.

She says Community Health Book offers people a platform to share their stories. “Everybody has a story and it’s important and we learn information from that. What’s happening to their health and welfare,” she says.

The stories continue to pour in. “We’re backlogged 300 to 400 stories a day,” Brockovich says.

She plans to dive deep to extrapolate data from the map and hope it can help spur action. “Because there’s a disconnect with our agencies, whether it’s federal or state, and what’s really happening to people. And the map is a way to bridge that gap (to realize) this is going on in your own backyard,” Brockovich says.

Water is already, and will become more of, an important environmental issue. Brockovich believes it must become a priority.

“This country is going to face, if we’re not already there, a major water crisis. The West is in a serious, serious drought. We have 33 million Americans still on well water, including many people here in Wisconsin. It’s a system that’s off the grid. That’s where we find a lot of pollutants and unbeknownst to these families, they’re being poisoned and they’re not testing their wells, or they wouldn’t know specifically what to test for,” she says.

One of the places Brockovich is immersed in is Gardena, California.

“They’re receiving black water. It’s been on the news. Thirty-one other municipalities have now come to us through Facebook telling us they have the same water problem,” she says.

What’s next for Brockovich?

She’s building a team to handle the flood of data being submitted to the Community Health Book map. “It’s research, it’s marketing and IT designers. It’s figuring out crowd sourcing. It’s at a place where for the next year of my life, this may be all that I do; it requires that much time and attention,” she says.

Another seed is taking root in her head, Brockovich is considering traveling the country in a RV bus.

“Being on the ground, in America, going to these places and at the same time do a documentary about it, because I really want us to wake up to what’s happening in America and I think we need to make it our priority, what’s happening on our American soil equally, if not more important, than what’s happening on foreign soils,” she says.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.