Bhopal, Anniston, the Love Canal: Environmental catastrophe usually befalls the poor and uninfluential. Freelance writer Horowitz (Tessie and Pearlie: A Granddaughter’s Story, 1996) documents a case that struck in an elite neighborhood—and, as usual, too little was done about it.
A 1971 graduate, Horowitz returns to Beverly Hills High School—seen in dozens of films, including It’s a Wonderful Life—to puzzle out a curious phenomenon: A disproportionate number of her classmates had fallen ill with or died of various cancers. And not just students: In the English department alone, one faculty member remarks, “There was like a death a year.” Come the winter of 2003, the incidence had become so high, well beyond the normal distribution of a disease that for the most part is “caused by environmental factors, not genetic ones,” that none other than Erin Brockovich had taken on the Beverly Hills High “poisonings” as case and cause. It happens, writes Horowitz, that for half a century the school grounds had doubled as an oilfield, with the city earning a sizable royalty for granting the privilege to a private energy developer; and workers at oil refineries and related facilities are notably susceptible to such illnesses. In these pages, Horowitz writes, bureaucrats dismissed technical questions, such as the on-site treatment of extracted oil with ammonia, radioactive iodine and other toxic elements, early on; one told her that releasing any information would endanger the public in the post-9/11 context, while a state engineer told a worried mother, “Lady, if you don’t feel comfortable, you should take your children elsewhere.” Horowitz follows the case into court, where a judge ruled, “counter to the available science,” in favor of the oil company, prompting the author to decry, with good cause, the state of the current judiciary and regulatory mechanisms.
A readable companion to Dennis Love’s My City Was Gone: The Poisoning of a Small American Town (2006).