You may remember actor Julia Roberts’ portrayal of environmental activist Erin Brockovich in the 2001 movie of the same name. The real Brockovich was scheduled to visit Watertown last night. But she got sick and was unable to travel.
Instead, concerned residents who live near the toxic waste site caused by the New York Air Brake factory got to talk with Brockovich’s representative. Some believe pollution in the area has caused them health problems.
Two men invited Erin Brockovich to come to Watertown. Andrew Williams, of Watertown, has neurological problems and is being treated at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. His old neighbor, Scott Barker, now lives outside of Columbus, Ohio, and invited Williams to stay with him when he had an appointment there. Barker said they speculate that their similar illnesses could be caused by contamination in Kelsey Creek, which they played in as children growing up on Watertown's East Division Street.
"While driving down to my house, I noticed – I asked him about his symptoms of what he was experiencing, and I noticed that they were the same as mine," Barker said. "And I was thinking in my mind what we had in common, and I turned to him: 'I wonder if it had anything to do with the creek in back of our house?'"
The men started a Facebook page for a group of citizens concerned about contamination and ill health effects from the site. And they worked to bring Erin Brockovich to Watertown, to try to raise awareness. The New York Air Brake site is already on the federal Superfund list, for cleanup of toxic waste.
Robert Bowcock is an environmental investigator with Brokovich's firm, Integrated Resource Management, in Claremont, California. He spoke to a packed house of several hundred people at the North Side Improvement League.
Former workers at the plant recalled dumping the industrial solvent tricholoethylene, or TCE, into or near the creek. TCE is believed to cause neurological damage.
Some studies have been done on homes near the site to determine whether soil vapors are contaminating their air with dangerous chemicals. But Bowcock said there are still many unknowns, and he blamed the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for a lack of information.
"One of the biggest concerns that I've had since I've been introduced to this particular case of pollution is the absolute lack of information in the public record," he said. "I have never seen so much concealment of information as I have in Watertown."
There was no representative from the DEC available to comment on Bowcock's claim. Bowcock said the community meeting was a first step in what could be a long battle for residents to get some answers.