Posted by Bill Couzens Founder Less Cancer

Brockovich takes on Lafarge

Erin Brockovich fields a question from Patrick Farrell, a retired employee of the LaFarge Cement Plant in Ravena, about the potential impact a lawsuit could have in closing the plant and eliminating jobs in the region. Colin DeVries/Hudson-Catskill Newspapers
Environmental advocate speaks on impact of plant’s emissions
By Colin DeVries
Hudson-Catskill Newspapers
Published: Saturday, September 12, 2009 7:43 PM EDT
RAVENA — Erin Brockovich — the environmental activist whose success has been immortalized with an Academy Award-winning performance by Julia Roberts — was the main attraction for a packed high school auditorium Friday, delivering an address on the effects of a neighboring cement plant’s toxic emissions.

Brockovich, hired as a consultant by the Manhattan-based law firm Weitz and Luxenberg, joined a trio of environmental health experts to inform the audience at Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School about the dangers of the Lafarge Cement Plant across the street and how to mitigate its impact.

“Tonight is about awareness,” she said. “And that’s very important because if you are not aware of what’s going on, if you are not being provided information, you cannot protect your family and your health — and those are the greatest gifts you will ever have.”

She stressed that her duty was to collect information from the community living in the shadow of the plant and use it to determine the next course of action.

No lawsuit, she said, was pending and it was unclear whether there was ever going to be a lawsuit against the cement manufacturer.

Brockovich, whose likeness and body of work has been portrayed in a film bearing her name, was the impetus of a $333 million settlement against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1996. She haphazardly discovered — while working on a pro bono real estate case as a file clerk — that more than 600 residents of Hinkley, Calif., were suffering from health effects due to Chromium 6 exposure. She revealed that the toxin had been leaking into the groundwater from a PGE compressor station since the 1960s.

That victory led to the hit movie and an Oscar for Julia Roberts’ performance as her.

Now she travels the world fighting for the rights of those affected by the detriment of industry.

Her presence in Ravena was the result of several e-mails by local residents who had contracted a rare strain of cancer — human sarcoma — which may be linked to the toxic emissions from the LaFarge plant, which was ranked fourth in the nation as the worst mercury polluter in 2007. Now she hopes to begin a grassroots effort that will inspire a change.

“What we have to do is work collectively, so you can protect what’s most valuable to you,” she said to the crowd. “You have a choice. You can look the other way or you can choose to do something about it.”

Data on how the LaFarge plant has impacted the region’s health is sparse but the purpose of the meeting was to assist in gathering that information and implementing a solution to evident problems.

Three experts were on hand to support Brockovich’s effort with scientific evidence and analyses of the toxins emitted by the plant.

According to a toxic release inventory for 2007 compiled by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, 174 pounds of mercury, 41,610 pounds of lead, and 100 pounds of arsenic were emitted by the plant in that year. Air pollutants included: 1145 tons of particulates, 14,804 tons of sulfur dioxide, 5,328 tons of nitrogen oxide, 140,000 pounds of ammonia and 120,000 of hydrochloric acid.

There are a slew of health effects that are a result of exposure to these toxins, both individually and collectively. In children, problems with development, autism, behavior, the immune system, allergies and severe illness are paramount. There is also a significant correlation between exposure to these toxins and heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cancer, allergies, autoimmune and psychiatric diseases.

“I think that we’re pretty much an endangered species right now,” said Dr. Mark Hyman, a medical doctor who treats numerous patients with environmentally-related illnesses. “The planet will survive. The Earth will go on. The reason for that is the Earth has tremendous regenerative capacities, but once our species poisons itself it may not come back.”

Hyman said though that the effects of toxic exposure are not reversible. There are treatments out there to help those affected, but the real solution lies more in prevention rather than rescue.

“If we do something about this,” Hyman said. “If we change what’s happening in our communities, if we work together with industry to bring about changes that lower emissions, reduce exposures and help clean our environments and help improve our health, then we can have better outcomes.”

He presented a study that showed that regulatory intervention actually had a reduction in mortality and a 15-percent increase in life expectancy.

Several concerned citizens raised concern over the exorbitant costs of testing for these toxins, as well as the impact a lawsuit might have on the more than 200 jobs the plant provides.

“I think a lot of people think that when I arrive, ‘Wow. There’s going to be another $333 million settlement and somebody’s going to come along and Ravena’s gonna be the next Hinckley and their gonna make a movie about me,” Brockovich responded. “That is not what I’m about. I’m certainly not in favor of destroying industry.”

In 19 years of being an environmental activist, she said, no company has been driven out of business from a lawsuit.

“I’m not here tonight to finger point,” she said. “That’s really not my job. I’m here tonight to help you.”

A Harvard University educator, Dr. Michael Bank, was also on hand to present his proposal on studying the effects on a 75-kilometer area surrounding the plant. Bank said he will study not only the smoke stack but the several quarries in the region, as well as the toxins effect, both individually and collectively.

“We’re dealing with a chemical mixture here,” Bank said. “We have to recognize we’re dealing with a lot of uncertainties dealing with this mixture.”

The Community Advocates for Safe Emissions, or CASE, was distributing questionnaires for attendants to fill out, which will help them collect critical health data. CASE, a citizens advocacy group formed in 2008, has been active in informing the surrounding communities about the dangers from the plant and what they can do about it. Visit them online at

The most important thing that Brockovich wished people attending would take from the town hall-style meeting — aside from awareness — is to know that it is not a monetary mission against big industry.

“Morality over money is the way of the future,” she said. “I hope companies like LaFarge will come out and do the right thing by all of you.”

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