In ‘Erin Brockovich,’ the residents of a small town discover that they are being poisoned by the chemicals released from a plant a few miles away from their homes. The titular Erin Brockovich comes across a case file that leads her to talk to the people of Hinkley and discover how they have been wronged. While there are more than 600 plaintiffs suing the company, there are only a couple of people who take center stage. Donna Jensen and Pamela Duncan are one of them. Are they based on real people?
Roberta Walker is the Inspiration Behind Hinkley’s Residents
While ‘Erin Brockovich’ is based on a true story, several aspects of the film have been fictionalized. The names of the plaintiffs are one of those details. The story of these people, however, is not fiction at all. Much like we see in the film, Erin Brockovich travels to Hinkley to talk to the residents, starting with Donna Jensen. While the name is fictional, the inspiration behind her is a real resident of Hinkley named Roberta Walker.
Roberta Walker and her family first moved to Hinkley in 1976. Walker revealed that they loved it there because it was “a peaceful, friendly little country town.” They’d planned to settle there for good, but the problems started to show. Both her daughters, who were still very young, started to have severe nosebleeds. When she talked to the doctors, they said that the “dry climate” might be the reason. But the nosebleeds were just the beginning.
Walker revealed that all these years, ingesting chromium 6 (which the company lied to was chromium 3, a milder variant), she had five stomach surgeries and three breast surgeries. Her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, while her daughters had fibromyalgia, and both of them got hysterectomies. The entire family had asthma. The root of all these illnesses can be tracked down to the water.
Walker first became suspicious of PG&E’s actions in 1993 when they started to buy the entire land around the plant. Walker was one of the last holdouts; at first, she and her family refused to sell. Eventually, they decided to sell the house for $250,000, which they didn’t expect PG&E to agree to, but they did! A while before that, they’d started giving bottled water to the families in the neighborhood, which was also a huge red flag for Walker. At the time, they’d said that the water had chromium 3, but a quick chat with an employee at the plant revealed it was actually chromium 6.
All the research that we see Erin Brockovich do in the film was actually done by Roberta Walker in real life. She went to the local library and read up all about chromium three and chromium 6, how different they are, and how deadly the latter variant is. She and her family tested for chromium 6, a process she called incredibly “excruciating,” and all her suspicions were proved to be true. Then PG&E bought their home, and they bulldozed the entire structure.
When Walker found out that it was actually chromium 6 in the water, she started to make copies of the reports that crossed her path. With that, she laid the foundation of a case, but 150 attorneys across the state refused to go up against PG&E. It was at a high school reunion when someone told her about Masry & Vititoe. She sent all of her reports to them, and while the response wasn’t immediate, things eventually started moving when Erin Brockovich knocked at her door.
Where is Roberta Walker Today?
Now in her 70s, Roberta Walker was forced to move away from Hinkley for good. When the lawsuit against PG&E was settled, she was set to get $5 million but revealed that she “didn’t even receive a fraction of that” and that the film just “made it look like” they’d won when they actually didn’t. She used that money to build another house, this time at a distance of more than six miles from the plant. They chose the spot because they were told that the plume doesn’t extend beyond a mile and a half. However, years later, they discovered that the plume’s radius had increased and, once again, they were in danger of contaminated water.
With no other option in sight, once again, Walker had to sell the place to PG&E, but this time, like so many other residents of Hinkley, they decided to leave town for good. For her, it was utterly heartbreaking to leave her “dream house,” especially when there was so much invested in it— financially as well as emotionally. It is not known where Walker’s family moved after that. But like most of the population of the town (of which only a few hundred still remain there), they are trying to get some sense of normalcy while PG&E tries to fix the problem they created.
Read More: What is Erin Brockovich’s Net Worth?