Being Like Brockovich

"I've always preferred the freedom of riding alone," Elizabeth Crawford says, taking long, purposeful strides as she shows me where she likes to bring her horse. We're on Ahmanson Ranch, a vast tract of rolling, oak-studded hills bordering Los Angeles and Ventura counties that Crawford helped to preserve.

Although the 2,983-acre ranch appears tranquil, the battle over who would control it was nothing short of ferocious. The land had always attracted nature lovers and filmmakers; parts of Gone with the Wind were shot here. More recently, a developer had a different vision: a mini-city of 3,050 luxury homes, two golf courses, retail and office space, schools, and a hotel.

Predictably, these plans sparked a fight between the developer--Ahmanson Land Company, owned by the Seattle-based banking giant Washington Mutual--and environmentalists, who wanted to save the wildlife. Like many such conflicts around the country, this one dragged on for years. But when Crawford joined the movement to save the ranch, she learned these acres hid a far more troubling story than anything she'd expected. Before long, Crawford--a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do--found herself pitted against formidable opponents, including an aerospace giant, government officials, nearby residents, and even some of the environmentalists who'd once been on her side.

In 2001 Crawford was a stay-at-home mother. Always health conscious and outdoorsy, she had rekindled her girlhood passion for horses and taught her three sons to ride at the ranch, which was owned by Washington Mutual but afforded some public access.

"I saw a chance to recapture a part of my childhood," she says. She had grown up in Hacienda Heights, about an hour east of Los Angeles, when that area was orchards, fields, and running creeks. "We had endless gallops through the hills," she says. "But in 1971, the bulldozers came, and my friends and I watched, horrified, as they plowed everything down."

So when she learned about the plans for the new development, she thought, I couldn't save Hacienda Heights, but I can try to do something about this. She joined the Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, a well-funded coalition that included several Hollywood activists, one of whom was her husband's boss, HBO president Chris Albrecht.

At her second meeting, one word stopped her in her tracks: Rocketdyne.

During the Cold War, Rocketdyne (a military contractor that was once a division of North American Aviation and later became part of Rockwell International and then Boeing) had done several groundbreaking government-backed projects, including work on an early nuclear reactor. The then remote location of Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), about two miles from Ahmanson Ranch, must have seemed perfect for such top-secret work. But by the 1990s, L.A.'s sprawl pushed many homes into the shadow of the plant on the hill, Crawford's among them. Before moving to the tonier suburb of Encino in 1996, she'd lived within earshot of Rocketdyne and had often been awakened by mysterious 2am explosions that rattled her windows and sent plumes of bright red smoke into the air.

"I knew those detonations weren't kosher, but it was beyond me to find out what, who, why, and so on," she says.

Now was her chance. Crawford's assignment from the Rally was to find out whether toxins from Rocketdyne might have contaminated soil and groundwater on the ranch, which would make it unattractive to the developer. Rocketdyne had a frightful safety record--a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959 that experts estimate was on a scale rivaling Three Mile Island's and a 1994 explosion that killed two scientists, for which the company pleaded guilty to illegal storing and dumping of hazardous waste and was fined $6.5 million. Dozens of former employees and local residents have blamed Rocketdyne for their cancers and other illnesses.

"I had no experience, so I was just a pair of hands the Rally could assign a small responsibility," Crawford says. "My orders were to assemble a file in case they needed it." The Rally introduced her to Mary Wiesbrock, the activist who'd spearheaded the fight against the development since 1989. Wiesbrock led her to the law offices of Masry & Vititoe, the firm made famous by Erin Brockovich; they had once filed suit against Rocketdyne for offsite toxic contamination and continued to track SSFL's effect on the area. They thought Crawford might be helped by reading their documents.

She was ill prepared to understand them. "I'm a mom, I ride horses, and I'm trying to save some trees so my kids have a place to go riding when they grow up," she says. "Next thing I know, I'm looking at groundwater reports, maps, and flowcharts, and I have no idea what they mean."

But with help from her friend Daniel Hirsch, the president of a nuclear watchdog group, she made sense of a key document, a report Ahmanson Land Company had commissioned on six shallow samples of soil. "They found radioactivity, but they never put that into the public record," Crawford says. She thought this damaging evidence would soon halt the development.

Wishful thinking.

When Crawford first testified before Ventura County's planning board in early 2002, she was ridiculed with "Now a mom from Encino is an expert." Undeterred, she started interviewing former Rocketdyne employees. "It was horrific what these people told me," she says. For instance, one ex-worker recalled toxic waste rotting in barrels under the sun.

"But the more evidence I found, the less anybody wanted to hear," Crawford says. "I was astonished at who was opposing me." Some nearby residents, though at first concerned about their own health risks, turned against her because they worried about property values. Most shocking were the handful of local environmentalists who asked her to back off. They had hoped to persuade the state to buy back the ranch--but they feared that wouldn't happen if it turned out to be seriously contaminated.

During the worst of the struggle, Crawford wavered between public bravado and private despair, often crying herself to sleep. "But I just kept remembering those nights living right next door to Rocketdyne," she says. "I grew my babies inside me while those people were burning their hazardous waste illegally. I breathed that air. I grew 'organic' vegetables in the cloud of their smoke and ate them. I kept thinking of the people living there now, and what they were possibly breathing right at this moment, and how everyone else had an agenda or could walk away from the fight, but my children have this stuff in their bones, in their tissues, and it may be another 25 years before we know how it will affect them. All I knew was that there were plenty of young mothers around Rocketdyne who didn't know about the contamination, and after I knew it, how could I shut up?"

Crawford began to relish her transformation from a self-described trembly-voiced mom to gadfly to the corporate giants. The second time she presented parts of the contamination report at a public hearing, "Washington Mutual brought in the author to refute my claims, but he couldn't dispute the data," she says. "The third time, they brought in new scientists. And the fourth time, they brought in Rocketdyne. I thought, All I had to do was blow up a couple of pages of your report and you're probably spending tens of thousands of dollars. Look at you run so scared!"

Pressured relentlessly by Crawford, Wiesbrock and a few others, Ventura County agreed to do more testing, this time examining the groundwater deep beneath the soil. They found perchlorate, the rocket fuel oxidizer that can cause thyroid problems and might lead to developmental disorders. (Boeing has denied the possibility of contamination from its site, claiming the test yielded a false positive.)

Although most of the environmentalists had been focusing on sprawl, dust and endangered species, they now realized that the question of toxins was the one issue Washington Mutual couldn't ignore. And so near the end of 2002, they changed tactics and asked for all her evidence so that their hired consultant, former EPA head Carol Browner, could testify in an 11th-hour effort to sway the county supervisors. "One of the proudest moments of my life was to hear my data come out of her mouth," Crawford says.

Within weeks, Crawford would begin a new job; she'd been invited to be an environmental aid to newly elected Ventura County supervisor Linda Parks. "Once you align yourself with the forces of truth, of public protection--of good--things will start rolling toward you in a way that you couldn't have anticipated," Crawford says.

But before Parks could take office, the county greenlighted the development. Even that blow didn't stop Crawford. She approached Washington Mutual and told them that if they wanted to sue the owners of SSFL, she'd hand over her evidence. "Within months of that conversation, Washington Mutual was talking about selling Ahmanson Ranch in the New York Times," she says. In October 2003, days before the recall election that would oust Governor Gray Davis, he announced that the state would buy the vast parcel for $150 million, just a fraction of the estimated value of the land.

Probably no one factor caused the about-face, but opponents of the project now believe that the perchlorate issue was crucial. With the possibility of contaminated groundwater out in the open, no one would want to build a house there. As long as the groundwater remains deeply buried, however, perchlorate does not pose a threat to hikers, cyclists and horseback riders. SSFL is now in the midst of a federally funded cleanup.

Crawford recently left her public post to work as an environmental specialist for Physicians for Social Responsibility, focusing mainly on Rocketdyne. She still thinks there's more contamination to uncover. But walking through the ancient oaks, she's more optimistic than ever about the power of one person to stand up for what she believes.

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