When consumer advocate Erin Brockovich visits Fort Smith next week, she and her staff will not just speak to Fort Smith residents about Whirlpool contamination and leave town.
According to Bob Bowcock, an environmental investigator with the Brockovich Firm, the firm's staff will collect soil and other samples from the neighborhood surrounding the former Whirlpool facility for their own independent research.
"We're going to go around and take some samples and get an idea of what's really going on," Bowcock said.
What is really going on is that the situation appears severe to Brockovich. The fact that the Brockovich Firm is coming to Fort Smith shows the severity of the situation, Bowcock said.
"We get hundreds of requests a week and can only go to a few and only go to those that appear most severe," he said.
The investigator said it was typical in situations such as Fort Smith, where Whirlpool has admitted that potentially cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE) used at its manufacturing processes had leaked into the ground, that the situation could be worse than large corporations let on.
"After doing a couple hundred of these, it gets pretty easy to see," he said, adding that in many cases communities are exposed to TCE risk through not only ingestion, as Whirlpool as suggested, but through other methods, as well.
"It pushes soil vapor into people's basements and their homes. It is likely more dangerous breathing it and getting it into your lung issue," Bowcock said. "You and I both know what that does."
During the town hall event, scheduled for 6 p.m. on March 26 at the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center at Cavanaugh Road and South 28th Street, residents will hear that information from Bowcock and Brockovich about potential health problems that could be caused from TCE exposure. They also will take questions from the crowd.
POTENTIAL LEGAL SUPPORT
He said what happens next is entirely up to the residents of Fort Smith.
"(Residents) invite us in, tell us what they want us to do and we offer advice and counsel on what to do," Bowcock explained.
Should the results of tests conducted by the Brockovich Firm show that the situation in Fort Smith is severe enough to require further action and the community expresses a desire for future involvement of the Brockovich Firm, Bowcock said the firm could involve itself in getting some sort of legal resolution for residents.
The resolution could include many possibilities but it is too early to tell what those might be, though Bowcock says it could involve working with Whirlpool to further attempt to contain the TCE contamination through more than the corporation's proposed groundwater well ban and possibly pursuing financial settlements with Whirlpool for residents.
Calls to Whirlpool Corp. were not returned Thursday (March 21). Calls to Whirlpool and its public relations agency have not been returned for months.