Sunday, April 25, 2010

10 Years After Erin Brockovich -- PG&E Is Aiming Its Propaganda at "A Bunch of Dumb Hicks"

Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the release of the acclaimed docudrama, Erin Brockovich, nominated for five Academy Awards and the source of Julia Roberts' first Oscar as best actress.  Without PG&E in the role of real-life loathsome polluter, poisoning the small San Bernardino County community of Hinkley with hexavalent chromium over four decades and then covering it up, none of it would have been possible.

As the conservative New York Post observed, it was "the kind of stand-up-and-cheer movie Hollywood is supposed to have forgotten how to make."

Ever since his March 1 buffoonish boast to a Wall Street investor conference that Proposition 16 is really intended to "diminish" voting on who provides electricity, Peter Darbee undoubtedly has more time on his hands.  Heeding his consultants' advice that, having gotten so far off-message,  he might be a distraction from the $35 million propaganda effort to disguise the measure as protecting the taxpayer's right to vote, he has become the invisible man. He has abdicated any role in publicly explaining why voters should hardwire his company's business advantage into the State Constitution. 

That's a little awkward for Darbee right now, as he waits out the May 12 shareholder vote on his Brobdingnagian 2009 compensation -- 74% above the median for large utility CEOs, according to the Wall Street Journal compensation survey, and even 8% above Goldman Sachs' CEO!  As the business school textbooks say, public leadership is the corporate CEO's primary duty. 

He might wisely use some of his freed up time to watch the Erin Brockovich DVD.  Maybe twice ... a day.

Why?  Because some things are hard to change, maybe even impossible, like PG&E's arrogance in dealing with people its executives don't consider their social equals.  Or the ease with which the company feels it can bend reality to its liking with just enough iteration and reiteration.

And because the toxins Darbee is disseminating through the airwaves and mailboxes of California may have an even more concentrated impact on his company's future wellbeing than those Ms. Brockovich discovered. 

PG&E might well consider using the movie as an instructional video in what to avoid.  Perhaps some future management regime will.

The Hinkley disaster resulted in a $333 million settlement by PG&E with more than 600 plaintiffs in 1996, at the time the largest settlement of a direct action lawsuit in history.  PG&E had been using hexavalent chromium as a corrosion inhibitor in the cooling towers for its local gas compressor since 1952. The company disposed of the cooling water blowdown in unlined pools, which contaminated local groundwater, and by spraying it into the air, which created a toxic inhalant.

Hexavalent chromium had been known as a cancer-causing chemical since the 1920s. PG&E found levels in local wells 400 times above the EPA safety standard in 1965, but as late as the mid-1980s was downplaying the problem to Hinkley residents.  The company claimed senior management had not been informed until 1987 -- in the words of the plaintiffs' trial brief, "The suggestion that senior management in San Francisco didn't know what was happening ... is the biggest lie of all." 

PG&E circulated a misleading leaflet to the community claiming that its groundwater cleanup program would result in levels "that meet the very conservative drinking water standards set by the EPA." 
"In addition, the form of chromium that will be left on soils after irrigation is nontoxic. In fact, chromium in this form is a naturally occurring metal that is an essential ingredient in the human diet, one that is often included in multiple vitamin/mineral supplements." 
As the plaintiffs' trial brief put it, the leaflet might have invited a person to "sprinkle some on your morning cereal."  In reality, concentrations of hexavalent chromium in the groundwater basin reached peak levels of 1,000 to 5,000 times the safe limit for drinking water and more than 50,000 times the safe level for inhalation.  

Meeting with Hinkley residents in 1988, PG&E officials said there was "no risk at current levels" and "generally, site groundwater is good and suitable for drinking and agriculture."  Responding to questions about "green swimming pool water" at local homes, company representatives said it was okay to swim in a pool where levels exceeded EPA limits because chlorine and other pool chemicals "kill any contaminants in the pool, including chromium."  One PG&E official said that he and his children would gladly drink the local well water.

The tenacity of the Hinkley plaintiffs, once they were eventually aroused, is the sweeping theme of the Brockovich movie.  What accounted for that doggedness?  As a 1994 Fox News series capsulized in quoting one of the plaintiffs:
"They thought they were dealing with a bunch of dumb hicks, that's what I think."
In 2006, PG&E settled a similar gas compressor station lawsuit for $335 million with 1,200 plaintiffs from the working class town of Kettleman City, California.

So Peter Darbee, though temporarily quarantined by his political consultants, nevertheless manages to spew carcinogens into the political dialogue of California with saturation advertising unashamedly targeting an electorate of morons. He shared a few of his premises in his infamously gleeful rant to Wall Street investors: 
  • " of the thoughts was we're aiming towards a June election and that it was a more favorable time to do it than as opposed to a November election." 
  • " also occurred to us that people aren't very pleased with the job that government is doing these days in general, you know, across the board."   

  • "So it was really a decision about could we greatly diminish this activity for all going forward rather than spending $10 - 15 million a year of your money ..."
  • "The answer was yes!  The June timeframe looked ideal and in the context of everything that is happening with government today -- the dysfunctionality of it -- we concluded it was a very ideal time!"
    What better opportunity to hypnotize the rubes into thinking they're voting to hold down taxes?  Why not goad the Tea Party types into believing they can lock down socialist bureaucrats?  And while you're rattling the wing nuts into feeling their very right to vote is at stake, why not slip in a new two-thirds majority requirement to build the walls around your captive customers significantly higher?

    But Darbee's fundamental miscalculation may be his proclivity to overkill.  Trying to fool people is one thing, rubbing their noses in it is a completely different proposition.  Is it wise to be so blatant about the wad one monopoly is willing to spend to protect "the Taxpayers Right to Vote"?  Is anyone gullible enough not to realize it's customer money which is paying for this campaign?  After the average voter has received 6 mailers and been forcibly exposed to 17 television ads and even more radio spots, is the likely reaction one of gratitude for PG&E's selflessness?  Or rage? 

    (Photo credit:  Darbee, Genesis Photo Agency)