Satellite Beach area contamination issues, and the alarming suspected link to a growing number of cancer cases, attracted environmental activist Erin Brockovich to visit Satellite Beach last Saturday to report on an intensive study of the local issues and to spread her life-long message of community empowerment.
The visit came after controversy ignited via Facebook between Brockovich and local government officials – a dustup that helped pack a room full of 350 ticketed and invited guests at the Kingdom Gate Worship Center adjacent to City Hall. The gathering was tense at first, with various activist groups sitting together to show solidarity. There were many longtime residents, several who proudly announced they have become known at local City Council meetings for speaking up and getting gaveled out.
Sitting toward the back of the room was Satellite Beach City Manager Courtney Barker, who was initially criticized by Brockovich, and Virginia Barker (no relation), director of Brevard County Natural Resources Management, as South Patrick Shores is unincorporated Brevard County.
“I told them I would be here if they wanted to ask me anything or speak. I wasn’t invited so I got a ticket,’’ Courtney Barker said. Neither spoke or asked a question.
Through her activism, Brockovich helped win a case against Pacific Gas and Electric Co., inspiring the namesake 2000 movie for which Julia Roberts won an Oscar for best actress. Remaining active worldwide since, Brockovich has shared her message of empowerment, first slowly via email and now gaining momentum through Facebook, which she recommends as a way for local groups and individuals to be heard by the agencies that can make a difference. This weekend Brockovich’s tour of Florida took her from Satellite Beach to St. Lucie County and the Everglades, and to areas plagued by toxic red tides and fish kills.
But onstage at the Kingdom Gate Worship Center, Brockovich started by saying she was in town simply to teach the community how to work together toward positive change.
There was a noted police presence early on, with several Satellite Beach officers watching the crowd to quell any disruptions, though none really materialized. One attendee was escorted out for walking in front of the crowd and holding up a cellphone to shoot video, and would not comply when asked to stop. There were no arrests or reports of trouble. As the meeting wound down during the question-and-answer period, most officers were signaled to leave.
Showing her compassion, Brockovich consistently spoke personally and reverently to cancer survivors who were sitting in a special section. Those survivors include Dr. Julie Greenwalt, an oncologist and cancer survivor who helped spearhead the successful effort to collect information on cancer in the Satellite Beach area.
“I want to assure you: Superman’s not coming. I’m not here to save the day, but there’s a room full of people that can, and that is you when you come together in your community and speak out. I’m not here to talk about politics. This isn’t about right or left. This is about right or wrong and that’s how I see it. Politics should not play in our clean water and our health, how we get information and how we speak out,” she said.
“What I’ve learned in working with the communities, they can handle the truth. What they can’t handle is the lies.”
Without shared information and encouragement, “you can’t make the right choices and right decisions for you and your families,” Brockovich said.
She recalled that her involvement began after noticing that children were sick in her town and thinking it was odd. “I kept thinking, what if I saw my children like this? What would I do?”
Still leading by example after 28 years, she and water expert Robert Bowcock showed perseverance during the four-hour meeting, extending the question-and-answer period for more than an hour. Like many who spoke, Brockovich choked with emotion speaking of the physical and emotional toll of cancer, both on the victims and on their families and friends.
Many expressed concern about the medical impact of confirmed groundwater contamination linked to the base, and the separate issue of a suspected military dump site in what is now South Patrick Shores in the unincorporated area north of Satellite Beach. Brockovich stressed continued support for the military in spite of the allegations aimed at military practices over the years.
Often emotional, locals asked how such problems could have been allowed to happen, why they were not reported or properly investigated by various agencies, how to go about asking for medical records and other information now, and where to go from here.
To that end, Brockovich, showed the group a screen with her communityhealthbook.com site showing a map of the U.S. covered with markers of areas and cases involving environmental problems suspected in medical issues. The site tracks cancer cases and other related information and trends, and also serves as a work-around for individuals to share important medical information. Solutions include better research on all chemicals prior to use, and the state of Florida setting new lower guidelines for PFAS/PFOA and other contaminants, she said.
The only rousing standing ovation occurred when Brockovich explained she came at her own expense, and that her team has committed to continued research and effort for the Satellite Beach area. “I’m out here because it’s the right thing to do. We can’t do nothing,” she said.