In 1993, Erin Brockovich found herself steeped in an environmental and public health crisis affecting the town of Hinckley, Calif. Hundreds of people of all ages were being diagnosed with cancer, an outcome ultimately traced to groundwater contamination stemming from a local energy plant. Without the aid of any legal training, Brockovich became the community’s primary advocate and forced the company to be held responsible for its negligent actions—an effort that garnered her national fame.
Brockovich addressed the Northeastern community in Blackman Auditorium on Wednesday evening. Her talk marked the end of the seventh annual Do it in the Dark competition, a three-week-long event hosted by the student-run Husky Environmental Action Team that raises awareness about the environment by tracking energy use among the university’s 10 residence halls on campus.
“We have a lot in common,” Brockovich told an audience comprised largely of students. “And that is a commitment to improving our environment and a commitment to your education. We help create awareness for others in communities…so that everyone can live in a peaceful, clean and safe environment.”
The event’s organizer, student Kayla Mottola, ’14, called Brockovich a true inspiration and “a fearless woman who has dedicated her life to challenging” the status quo.
In her talk, Brockovich urged the student community to do the same. “You have to develop the habit of persevering even when you don’t want to and it would be easier to give up,” she said. “That’s one thing they never did in Hinckley, California: They never gave up.”
Brockovich also fielded questions posed by members of the audience, addressing topics ranging from internship opportunities to the politics of privatizing water. One student, who identified himself as a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, asked Brockovich what she thinks about hydraulic fracking, a controversial process to remove natural gas from deep in the earth.
“It has become a real concern in communities,” she responded. “There is a right way for us to do this and there is a wrong way to do it.” Brockovich repeatedly noted that none of the individuals she represents wants to do away with companies or commerce. “They just don’t want to be poisoned,” she said.
Brockovich’s newest project is a collaboration with Google to create something called the Peoples’ Reporting Registry, a mapping tool that allows consumers to track disease data that might be connected to poor environmental practices. By identifying clusters of disease, Brockovich said, we may be able to identify other public health crises and address them.
Finally, in the moment everyone was waiting for, Brockovich announced the winners of the Do It In The Dark competition. Kerr Hall reduced its energy consumption the most, with a total savings of 214kWh, followed by Melvin and Kennedy Halls.
Jess Feldish, the executive director of HEAT, thanked all the members of the Northeastern community who took on the Do it in the Dark challenge. “I hope that as a collective we will keep conserving and learn to live more sustainably,” she said.