The Devil and Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich-Ellis, the environmental crusader whose story graced movie screens a few years ago, launched her latest campaign last spring. Along with Edward Masry, the lawyer she still works for, Brockovich-Ellis (who changed her name after remarrying) made a stunning allegation: Oil wells on the campus of Beverly Hills High School were spewing a carcinogen -- benzene -- and causing cancer among students, staff, and alumni.

After meeting a young graduate who has had two types of cancer, and hearing about the wells on campus, Brockovich-Ellis headed out to test the air around the school in November 2002. "I was just sitting in the bleachers," she told parents gathered for a meeting last March at the Beverly Hills Hotel, "and we got benzene readings that were at very alarming levels -- at least five times higher than on the 405," a freeway. The result of this contamination, she continued, was Hodgkin's disease at sixteen times the expected levels among alumni.

Brockovich-Ellis didn't offer the school district or city officials her test results, nor did she invite officials to the meeting. Instead, she went to the media. In February 2003, a month before the meeting with parents, she gave an exclusive interview on the test results to CBS's Los Angeles affiliate, KCBS. Titled "Toxic School?" the segment began, "If your child goes to Beverly Hills High School, you should pay specific attention to this story, because there is growing evidence that going to school, sitting in classrooms, and especially exercising on the play fields could have your child breathing toxic fumes." Brockovich-Ellis told KCBS that after she first detected high benzene levels, six subsequent tests produced the same results.

The case had the perfect mix of ingredients -- wealth, celebrities, and the whiff of scandal. (Beverly, as the school is known, has graduates ranging from the actor Nicolas Cage to Monica Lewinsky, and has been earning royalties from the oil wells for decades.) A mini media frenzy ensued, with coverage from Good Morning America to The New York Times to newspapers in New Zealand. "Beverly Hills is not all Botox, faux-Spanish mansions and imported sports cars," wrote the august Economist magazine. "It also has cancer clusters, and these have become Erin Brockovich's latest crusade."

Journalists noted that there were two sides of the story: Brockovich-Ellis said there was a problem, while the city and the wells' owner, a company named Venoco, said there wasn't. The New York Times's coverage was typical, offering dueling quotes while leaning toward Brockovich-Ellis's position: a celebrity school's students say oil wells are making them sick, announced a June 17 story.

But was there, in fact, a problem?

One reporter -- a former stand-up comedian working for one of the lowest-profile publications in Los Angeles -- decided to find out. In the process she helped uncover what appears to be a Hollywood heroine's campaign of deception.

Norma Zager, editor-in-chief of the Beverly Hills Courier, a free weekly, doesn't fit the image of a muckraker. Zager, who is fifty-seven, often wears a suede cowboy jacket with tassels, is (endlessly) cheery, and looks, well, like the contented Jewish mother that she is. (She has two grown children.) "I'm usually the biggest pussycat reporter around," says Zager. "I get my feelings hurt if somebody calls up to complain about one of my stories."

Zager, who briefly worked as a reporter in Detroit after college, spent about fourteen years doing stand-up comedy routines in Los Angeles and Las Vegas before deciding in 1999 to return to journalism. She found work as a reporter for the Courier, and about a year ago was promoted to the top spot. (It wasn't a huge jump; the Courier has two full-time editorial employees.) The paper typically covers A-list charity balls and small-town happenings. bh park rangers share experiences, it announced recently. Zager's duties range from editing and reporting, to writing a column on celebrity homes.

The Courier's newsroom isn't impressive. The day I visit the low-slung, nondescript building, Zager is simultaneously writing a story, digging out court files for me to peruse on the Brockovich-Ellis case, and chatting on the phone with what seems to be a suitor who invites her to a party hosted by Lee Iacocca (she declines).

Soon after KCBS's report about toxins at Beverly, Masry and Brockovich-Ellis called their March meeting for parents and other potential claimants. Zager attended and quickly grew skeptical. Government regulators had tested the air around Beverly and found no significant amounts of benzene. When parents asked about the discrepancy, Zager recalls, "Masry and Brockovich started blustering and telling people to shut up. So I said to myself, ‘Okay, we've got a scam on our hands. Now what do I do?'"

Zager says she decided to learn everything she could about oil wells, benzene, and cancer clusters. Meanwhile, independent and government experts looked into the case. Toxicologists, epidemiologists, and oil regulators all dismissed Brockovich-Ellis's and Masry's assertions as quackery: the wells weren't leaking, the air was relatively clean, and rates of Hodgkin's disease around the school were normal. Indeed, despite reporters' "balanced" coverage, no independent scientist backed up the allegations as credible. (Regulators did cite Venoco for two potential violations -- an antipollution unit had insufficient filters and the wells had, on occasion, vented natural gas, a process for which the company insists it had permission. Neither potential violation significantly affected benzene levels and both were settled in October.) In any case, several studies have shown no link between oil wells and Hodgkin's. Los Angeles has thousands of wells and none has been linked to any cancer. "Is there any evidence that benzene at the levels found at Beverly causes cancer? No," says Thomas Mack, chief of the epidemiology division at the University of Southern California's medical school. "You're just as likely to get cancer from your car stereo."

A few news outlets did emphasize that officials didn't buy the claims. USA Today, for instance, headlined: Lawyers: beverly hills high school's a hazard; although officials doubt campus' oil wells pose cancer risk, parents are close to panic. But Zager's digging went beyond that and uncovered something more surprising: Brockovich-Ellis's own data didn't support her contentions. Despite requests from parents and school district officials, Brockovich-Ellis and Masry refused to release their data until the city subpoenaed them and a judge ordered them to comply -- a fact only Zager noted in her stories.

When the data sets were finally handed over, they showed that despite Brockovich-Ellis's claim that she repeatedly found alarming levels of benzene, nearly all the readings were normal. As Zager reported -- again, nearly alone among reporters covering the story -- the highest benzene reading was still below state regulations and was contradicted by another sample Brockovich-Ellis took at the same time that showed no measurable benzene. Michael Tuday, head of research at the lab Masry used to compile the data, was quoted in the Courier as saying, "When you're doing sampling, you don't want to base health-risk decisions on a single sample result; that would be irresponsible." (Zager says that after she got that quote, Masry told Tuday to stop taking calls from her.)

As the Masry and Brockovich-Ellis evidence crumbled, their cancer-cluster claims continued to be cited in the press. "When I have three hundred cancers staring me in the face and an oil-production facility underneath the school, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two fit together," Brockovich-Ellis told People magazine in May 2003. Masry told The Associated Press that the school's cancer rate was twenty to thirty times the national average.

Once again, the two refused to document their claims until a judge ordered them to comply. Zager sat in on the court hearings and heard a lawyer for Masry's firm admit that, in fact, his side did not do an epidemiological study and has no data on rates at all. Zager's headline the next week: Masry's attorney admits in court no study done by them to establish cancer rates at bhhs.

Zager acknowledges that her writing isn't always the most graceful or easy to follow. She also has an obvious advantage over other reporters in that her paper is focused on Beverly Hills. But her reporting has gone beyond just being there.

Curious about how Brockovich-Ellis arrived at her cancer numbers, Zager got copies of the injury claim forms Masry and Brockovich-Ellis filed with the city. She found that at the same time the two were publicly referring to 300 cases of cancer, they had filed only 216 damage claims, of which only ninety-four were actually for cancer. The other injuries consisted of everything from insomnia to "tingling sensations."

Remember the KCBS report that first raised concerns about toxins in the air? It relied almost exclusively on the Brockovich-Ellis and Masry allegations. As Zager first reported, the producer for that story, Claudia Bill-de la Pena, serves on the Thousand Oaks city council with Masry. Along with his wife, Masry donated money to Bill-de la Pena's election campaign. "If you are looking at a connection between the City Council and my producing, it is not the right route to go from a journalistic standpoint," Bill-de la Pena told the Courier.

"Norma works really hard, and she's honest," says USC's Mack, who is less impressed with other journalists' efforts on the Beverly story. "Reporters tend to rely on balance because they're unsure of themselves or not knowledgeable enough to put something in context. So they make it a ‘he said, she said' rather than going to a third or fourth source to resolve or try to understand the apparent conflicting information."

"There's nothing murky about what I print," says Zager. "There's no innuendo. I just print facts. I print the test results." That habit has landed Zager "number one on Brockovich's and Masry's enemies list," she says with glee. "I met some new lawyers for Masry one day and decided to introduce myself. So I went up to them and said, ‘Hi, I'm Norma Zager. Better known as the Devil.'"

Eric Umansky writes the "Today's Papers" column for Slate.com.

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