Erin Brockovich is moving forward with a possible sequel to the investigation she led in California, this time in Australia.
Brockovich and the Westlake Village, Calif., law firm Masry & Vititoe earned acclaim for her sleuthing in Hinkley, which found that a California power company had polluted the water supply.
The investigation was turned into a 2000 movie that earned Julia Roberts a Best Actress Academy Award.
This time, Brockovich is leading a fight to help the town of Yarloop in Western Australia, where she believes people have become ill from exposure to emissions from the aluminum refinery Wagerup, owned by Alcoa Inc.
“The people in Yarloop remind me of the people in Hinkley,” said Brockovich of Agoura Hills, Calif. “Their job and plight isn’t to make Alcoa go away, it’s to get Alcoa to do right by the people who’ve been affected by Alcoa’s process.”
Alcoa denies doing anything injurious to the people of Yarloop.
“We are different than other companies,” Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said. “People may want to paint all companies with a single brush, but we truly are different.”
The company’s position is that communication and engagement are the best way to resolve the issues that Brockovich is investigating, he said.
“We have said we’d be more than happy to brief her on this facility, and that invitation still sits,” Lowery said. “We have not heard from her directly.”
Brockovich got involved after a woman from Yarloop sent her an e-mail, saying she was sick with chronic nosebleeds, headaches and rashes. Brockovich didn’t become active right away because she was not working on international matters at the time.
However, she kept hearing about Yarloop from various people, which piqued her interest. About six to eight months ago, she decided to help a Brisbane, Australia-based law firm, Shine Lawyers, which has received information concerning 180 potential claims.
“We believe there could be as many as 250 or 300 potentially affected,” said Simon Morrison, the litigation partner in charge. Yarloop is a small town with a dwindling population, two hours south of Perth, Morrison said.
“The reason people have left the town is because of the perceived problems,” he said.
Brockovich has not been to Yarloop because she is allergic to sulfur, reportedly emitted in the refining process, but she said the people there live out in what some call “the bush.”
“It’s clean, safe living and they’re getting pushed out and it doesn’t have to be that way,” she said.
Just as she noted in the Hinkley case, Brockovich said one need not be a doctor or scientist to figure out that something’s wrong when hundreds of people in a community all have the same health problems — strange skins rashes, nosebleeds and headaches.
“That’s what I’m seeing again,” she said. “That’s what I’m dealing with again.”
Ed Masry, the Westlake Village lawyer she assisted in Hinkley, died in 2005. If he were alive, she believes he’d be supportive of her endeavor in Yarloop.
“I can hear him now,” she said. “‘Go for it, kid.’ ”
Headquartered in New York City, Alcoa is the world’s leading aluminum producer.
Alcoa has won numerous awards for the way it does business, Lowery pointed out. It rated among the 2007 “World’s Most Ethical Companies” by Ethisphere.com, and has been recognized by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Alcoa takes an ore called bauxite and sends it to a refinery in Yarloop, which refines it into alumina oxide, a white powder that gets sent to an aluminum smelter that converts it into aluminum.
The emissions in Yarloop are well within Australia’s standards, Lowery said.
Before deciding how to proceed, the law firm and Brockovich will conduct a complete investigation.
“We’re looking at some law firms in the United States to partner,” Brockovich said.
(Contact Stephanie Hoops of the Ventura County Star in California at www.venturacountystar.com.)