Environmental crusader Erin Brockovich told hundreds of people in Fridley on Wednesday that they're right to be concerned about pollution in their backyard and praised community activists for raising the questions.
Brockovich and colleague Bob Bowcock said that Fridley has one of the worst Superfund sites in the country and that toxic chemicals could still pose a threat to their health.
"I don't have all the information," she said, but she said the experts "don't have it either."
Brockovich and Bowcock came to Fridley at the invitation of a citizen's group called Fridley Cancer Cluster that started on Facebook in January and has swelled to more than 2,700 members.
Brockovich said there are thousands of communities like Fridley across the country with similar concerns. "I think the communities are becoming empowered by Facebook, by Twitter. They're starting to use their voices."
Brockovich said she and Bowcock plan to conduct environmental tests in Fridley but their main goal is to help the citizens pursue answers themselves.
Brockovich's visit had been widely anticipated for weeks on the Facebook site, which was created by Jason McCarty.
McCarty, a Blaine resident who grew up in Fridley, said he started the site to share information about a possible link between cancer rates and Fridley's history of toxic contamination. In the 1980s, cancer-causing chemicals were found in the soil or groundwater in four of the city's industrial sites as well as its well field, which supplied its drinking water; all five sites ended up on the national Superfund list.
City and state officials have said that they began monitoring and cleaning up the sites three decades ago and that the drinking water has remained within safe levels.
"This community has been polluted for a 40-year period," said Bowcock, who specializes in water quality. He acknowledged that the drinking water is well within the federal government's safety levels, but he said carcinogenic chemicals can still be found in the Fridley water supply.
"As a community, I would not accept that," he said, looking at the audience. "Would I feed that to that baby? Absolutely not."
Several officials from the state Health Department and Pollution Control Agency attended the meeting, but they did not join in the discussion. "We're here to hear what are the people's concerns," said Aggie Leitheiser, assistant commissioner of health. State officials have said that cancer levels in Fridley are about 7 percent higher than the state average but that cancer rates are higher all across Anoka County, largely because of smoking.
Some residents, however, said Brockovich's involvement gave more gravity to their concerns. "The fact that Erin Brockovich and her team have spent all this time and energy ... has certain people alarmed and concerned that there's something to these problems," said Tony Huber, who grew up in Fridley.
Another former resident, Jennifer Torres, said she has been drinking bottled water since news broke months ago about the Faceback campaign. "We even make our coffee with it."
Greg Leaon, 52, said he was even more worried after the meeting than before it. "It has to be serious enough that Erin Brockovich and her researcher came."
Arriving well in advance of the meeting, the charismatic Brockovich brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to Fridley High School. She held court in the entryway as TV cameras surrounded her and citizens lined up to chat and snap pictures.
"You have a community saying to you, 'We're sick and something's wrong,'" she said. She said they won't find answers "overnight" and indicated the investigation could lead to legal action -- "We will be talking to law firms. It's just something we can't necessarily get away from." But she said residents "are not looking for some big lawsuit here. They're looking for some answers."
Brockovich shot to fame in 2000 with the eponymous Hollywood movie, starring Julia Roberts, about her emergence as an environmental crusader. Working as a file clerk for a law firm, Brockovich helped expose Pacific Gas & Electric for contaminating the groundwater of Hinkley, Calif., with toxic chemicals. The company ended up paying more than $700 million to settle claims.
Brockovich said she's spent more than 20 years investigating pollution concerns and is working with Google to create what she calls the "People's Reporting Registry" to track possible disease clusters across the country. "We decided to start taking that information and building a database."
Staff writer Daniela Hernandez contributed to this story.
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384#