Questions raised about Brockovich’s Whirlpool review

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 194 views 

They did not have to come. They chose to come after Fort Smith residents reached out and asked for help. But now there are questions about where Erin Brockovich's environmental firm has gone and why they have not been in touch with residents or media regarding the plume of trichloroethylene (TCE) she said her firm would investigate in March of this year.

The TCE plume Brockovich had said she would investigate was the result of a cleaning solvents used by Whirlpool during until the 1980s. The chemical, which is known to be cancer-causing, made its way into groundwater in the area north of the company's former manufacturing facility. Whirlpool is currently working with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality to find a solution to the pollution problem.

Minutes before The City Wire was prepared to publish this story on June 17, Melissa Dutcher, claiming to be working on the Brockovich group's Whirlpool investigation, sent the following e-mail:

"My name is Melissa Dutcher and I'm the Environmental Coordinator at Vititoe Law Group. I am part of the team working on the Whirlpool investigation. Mr. Bowcock has been traveling extensively the last few weeks and asked that I follow-up with you. Mr. Bowcock's testing was inconclusive because the wells were dry and there is a plan to do follow-up sampling in the next few weeks. ADEQ is scheduled to release their spring water sample results this week and we, along with everyone else, are waiting to read these. We are in the process of scheduling another community meeting near the end of June at the request of Ft. Smith residents living in the plume."

The individual Dutcher mentions in the e-mail is investigator Bob Bowcock of Integrated Resource Management, a Claremont, Calif.-based company. He, along with Brockovich, held the March 26 town hall meeting in Fort Smith with residents regarding the contamination and vowing to hold Whirlpool accountable.

"We walked around the facility, we looked at the drainage system coming off the property. We understand a little bit about what they were making there and the chemicals they were using. We walked the rail spurs and kind of looked at the topography, you know? What does the Earth look like just from the surface because that's going to tell you a lot about where these chemicals are going to go and everybody knows, who lives here, that Whirlpool's kind of in a high spot and it's headed in a northeasterly direction down to the creek," Bowcock said at the March 26 event.

Brockovich continued later in the meeting, telling residents that while they may have felt abandoned by Whirlpool, she and her crew of investigators would not leave Fort Smith high and dry.

"We're here to help you. We're going to start the process of an investigation. We've already started sampling. We're going to be back to get more samples. We're going to be in touch with you. We're going to tell you what we find out. We're going to tell you what documents we uncover. We're going to work with the employees and we will start the process of isolating where the plume is, where it isn't, who's impacted and then one of the decisions you will have to make is you will be entitled and you have the right to have your property bought, taken care of or any future damages for your health as we move forward," she said.

Bowcock also said a Facebook page would be set up to help residents communicate to the Brockovich Firm with anonymity. That was March 26. As of June 17, no Facebook page has been set up.

Several residents have told The City Wire that no contact has been made between the firm and residents. And calls from The City Wire to Bowcock and Integrated Resource Management have not been returned for at least two months, though the e-mail from Dutcher came at 5:23 p.m. after more than 50 attempts to reach Bowcock.

The last contact between The City Wire and Bowcock took place approximately three weeks after the town hall he and Brockovich hosted in Fort Smith. At the time, he said results were not available from tests conducted while he was in the area.

Since results were not yet available, he instructed The City Wire to try contacting him again about two weeks later, around the last week of April. But he did not answer calls to his cell and office numbers and did not return numerous phone calls and voicemails left by multiple representatives of The City Wire.

A woman who answered the phone at his office June 13 said, "He is very busy. He is in Colorado and he won't be back in the office until next week." She then said all calls would have to go through a press agent, declining to provide a timeline of when or if The City Wire's multiple calls over the previous two months would be returned.

Resident Debbie Keith, who initially reached out to Brockovich and was instrumental in her coming to Fort Smith, declined to comment and referred all questions to Brockovich and Bowcock, with whom she still has contact.

Travis Westpfahl, a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against Whirlpool, is one of the residents who said he has been unable to reach anyone associated with Brockovich.

"They asked for our e-mail addresses and all of that stuff, but they never got back with us," he said.

According to Westpfahl, he attempted to contact the firm twice through their website, but to no avail. He said he could not figure out why Brockovich and her colleagues would spend time coming to Fort Smith if they were not going to follow up with residents and the media.

"It makes you wonder if there is no contact after that, why bother to come in if you're not going to do anything? …I feel like they hope it will just go away. I feel like they're hoping that they can wait and then it will go away. That's the way I kind of feel about it."

Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack said he was not aware if the company has conducted independent testing in the neighborhood near the former Whirlpool manufacturing facility.

"We have had no contact from Erin Brockovich or made contact with her company," he said. "I am not aware of any testing that the Brockovich group has done."

Katherine Benenati, public outreach and assistance division chief at ADEQ, said in an e-mail that the state agency had only been in contact once with anyone associated with Brockovich.

"The discussion dealt with where we were in the process of reviewing the risk assessment plan. I don’t have the name of the caller or an exact date," Benenati said.

Gosack, recalling Brockovich's claims that she would be there for the community, said he was disappointed by her inaction and leaving residents feeling slighted.

"She even said, 'We've got your back.' That's one of the last things she told the residents during the public meeting. …It is disappointing because it was going to give residents an independent level of assurance of what was happening or not happening. They created high expectations among the residents that they were going to do an independent investigation and it appears so far that they've done nothing toward that end."

While there has been little to no communication from the Brockovich Firm to individuals contacted by The City Wire, Gosack said he was happy to report that communications between the city, ADEQ and Whirlpool had improved.

"I think that's helped the Mayor and the Board of Directors, but more importantly, it's helped the citizens. They have more access now than a year ago and that's a result of action taken by the Board of Directors."

Whirlpool submitted a revised risk management plan to ADEQ on May 21. Gosack said it is his understanding that the agency is reviewing the plan now.

"It is possible they could ask for additional information from Whirlpool or they could put it out for public comment," he said.

Westpfahl said regardless of what plan is approved by ADEQ or whether he hears back from anyone associated with Brockovich, he just wants something done about his contaminated property.

"Hopefully they'll make them clean it up. That's the main thing."