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Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich came to Napa Wednesday morning to meet with people who lost their homes in last year's wildfires. She is advising lawyers who are suing PG&E on their behalf.

Erin Brockovich, whose battle to hold Pacific Gas & Electric responsible for environmental contamination was celebrated in a popular Hollywood movie, was in Napa Wednesday to renew the fight.

This time, Brockovich had been retained by attorneys who are suing PG&E for damages in the wake of last October’s devastating fires in Napa and adjacent counties.

Watts Guerra LLP/Mauro Archer Associates, LLC – one of many legal teams suing PG&E in connection with wildfires – has hired Brockovich as a legal consultant. This week, they brought Brockovich to Sonoma and Napa counties to speak about her experience and advise local residents on self-advocacy.

“Oftentimes, we stand in our own way and we wait for someone else to come fix it when we have that ability to rise up and be that change,” Brockovich told a small group of invited guests during a quickly organized meeting at Workmix Lounge in Napa on Wednesday.

“This, I think, is one of the most critical times for everyone to come together,” Brockovich said, adding that residents need to stand up for themselves and make sure that they tell their public officials that they want the utility company to be held accountable.

There can be the perception that lawyers are in it just for the money, she said. But, if it were her, she would just provide hesitant folks with facts and information. Then, she said, give them time.

“There’s been such a breach of trust and it’s a hard road to come back ... I think you’ll find that again in your community,” she said.

Brockovich was made famous for her environmental activism following the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich” starring Julia Roberts as Brockovich. The film follows Brockovich, a newly hired legal clerk, as she exposes groundwater contamination in Hinkley, California. The water pollution was linked to PG&E’s Hinkley Compressor Station, which allowed the rust suppressant chromium 6 to leak from unlined ponds into groundwater.

The case that was brought against PG&E resulted in a $333 million settlement in 1996. PG&E is still conducting its cleanup effort in the town, which Brockovich says has emptied out.

Ever since that event – and the publicity she received following the film – Brockovich has been called in when it looks like PG&E is responsible for another crisis.

“When there tends to be an environmental disaster and Pacific Gas & Electric’s involved, they call me,” Brockovich said following the meeting. “It has nothing to do with me – it has everything to do with their bad behavior.”

Brockovich was invited to join the legal team “because of her long experience with PG&E,” representative Matt Pope said. The legal team is representing about 1,000 clients affected by the fires in Napa and Sonoma counties, Pope said.

Several counties, including Napa and Sonoma, are also suing PG&E.

Cal Fire has already linked PG&E to the cause of several wildfires including the Atlas Fire, which burned 51,624 acres, destroyed 783 structures and resulted in six deaths in Soda Canyon and Silverado areas.

The Partrick and Nuns fires in Napa County – part of a series of fires that merged in Sonoma and Napa counties – have also been connected to PG&E by Cal Fire.

Cal Fire has not yet released its conclusion as to what caused the most devastating of all the wildfires, the Tubbs Fire, which started outside Calistoga and wiped out a swath of Santa Rosa.

The company just keeps making mistakes and denying accountability, Brockovich said, citing other events linked to the utility company, including the San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010 and a Yuba City house explosion in 2008.

If PG&E can’t afford to pay its liability or can’t perform proper maintenance then maybe it can’t handle being a monopoly and other utility companies need to come in, she said.

“This is what they do. This is their M.O. They deflect,” she said of PG&E. “They just don’t want to be responsible for managing their company.”

“This company was not on their game again,” she said, “... and somehow they’re going to be the victim in that.”

Deanna Contreras, PG&E spokesperson, said that Brockovich’s assertion that PG&E is trying to shift blame to communities or trying to make it so consumers will pay costs incurred related to wildfires is “simply not the case.”

PG&E has not yet been able to review Cal Fire reports since they were sent to district attorneys’ offices, and therefore, not made public, Contreras said.

“Based on the information we have so far,” she said, “we continue to believe our overall programs met our state’s high standards.”

“The loss of life, homes and businesses in these extraordinary wildfires is simply heartbreaking, and we remain focused on helping communities recover and rebuild,” Contreras said, repeating the statement she gave following the release of Cal Fire’s findings earlier this month.

PG&E had no comment regarding Brockovich joining the Watts Guerra LLP/Mauro Archer Associates, LLC legal team.

Brockovich, who resides in Los Angeles, plans to return to Napa again in July.

The original posting of this story incorrectly identified Matt Pope. 

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.