The first time I watched Erin Brockovich I was 16. I sat transfixed by the dreamlike Thomas Newman score, an undercurrent of mystery and a reflection of the sparseness of San Bernardino County. The sonic pulse pulled me close to Stephen Soderburgh’s hazy vision of Hinkley, CA, the setting for Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning turn as a single mother without a college education who unearths (literally) one of the largest anti-pollution class action lawsuits of the 20th century.
I already said her name, but in case you forgot: I’m talking about Erin Brockovich.
I remember the credits rolling on the DVD as I ran upstairs to use the bathroom, make another glass of chocolate milk, then hustled back downstairs to watch the movie again. I was pulled in by the true story, full of deception and intrigue and stupendous writing with lots of subtle humor; but more importantly, I was mesmerized by Julia Roberts’ powerful performance as the fierce, potty-mouthed mama bear whose fight to keep a roof over her kids’ heads rapidly evolves into a much larger battle. A war waged against an unethical corporation that knowingly poisons an entire town via the groundwater beneath it. Erin Brockovich enamored me, and it was the first time I really thought critically about humanity’s role in the impending downfall of Planet Earth. It was also one of the first times I felt heavily drawn to heroic women, standing up for justice in the face of greed and power, a theme that has persevered throughout my entire life.
Years later, when I became reacquainted with a lifelong obsession of exploring abandoned spaces, I also became reintroduced to the story of Erin Brockovich. As I began to poke around multiple industrial ruins up and down the Hudson Valley, I discovered many of them were shuttered due to severe EPA violations. Acres and acres of property, abandoned because of environmental contamination, and they all boasted eerily similar stories to that of Anderson et al v. Pacific Gas and Electric from the mid-1990s. (The case for which Erin Brockovich’s work investigating hexavalent chromium in the groundwater eventually led to a $333 million win against PG&E, the largest class-action lawsuit in history at that time.)
After my first visit to the ruins of the former (and massive) Al Tech Specialty Steel Co., (just outside of Albany, NY), I was hooked to these larger abandoned sites, not only for their size and grandeur but also because they gave me repeat opportunities to fulfill my Erin Brockovich fantasy wherein I began to imagine that I was Erin Brockovich herself.
I’m parked in a dusty lot somewhere in Schenectady, NY, scrolling through Reddit. An attempt to investigate a block of abandoned homes has abruptly ended because all the houses were demolished. The plot of land where they once stood is already under development, likely a new high-rise of lackluster apartments. Determined to capitalize on the full day ahead of me, I come across a comment on a thread that mentions “a large block of abandoned warehouses at the bottom of Spring Street in Colonie,” an Albany suburb.
I try my luck and turn on Google Maps. As it turns out, I’m only seven minutes away. I scurry over to the location and approach a decaying security gatehouse. They always seem to be painted sky blue. The chainlink fence is cracked just wide enough for my meager (but mighty!) 5’6” frame, so I maneuver with ease through the gap. And just like that, I’m in. I stand still to get my bearings.
I can’t tell exactly where I am, but I have inadvertently broken the cardinal rule of my All-American Ruins expeditions: don’t research the history of a site before the visit. I like the freedom of a blank slate, to allow my imagination to run wild. However, in the Reddit thread, I notice someone mentions that the complex was abandoned because of multiple, dangerous EPA violations. Groundwater contamination. As I begin my descent into the complex that I eventually learn is the abandoned Al Tech Specialty Steel Corporation, I know one thing’s for sure:
I am Erin Brockovich, and I’m here to covertly investigate groundwater contamination.
Like many of my quests to abandoned spaces, my imagination flicks on, the moment I pass the threshold. It’s the early ’90s. I’ve flown back in time, and I’ve snuck into the plant. I glance at the security gatehouse and see two men playing cards inside. They don’t even notice me. I look left and see a magnificent panel of levers. Instinctively, I pull one. An alarm blares. Pandemonium ensues. Both security guards drop their poker game and dash out into the industrial vortex. I slip into their post. It smells like Marlboro Lights and Fritos. I open drawers, searching for answers. I scan notices on the wall, full of information about employee safety training.
I have no idea what any of it means, but I glance to the bottom of one sheet and confirm my suspicions: it’s 1992, and indeed, I am Erin Brockovich. The wailing alarm subsides, and I hear the security guards reapproach. “False alarm, heh,” one chortles. I make a daring escape, just in the nick of time, as we trade spots once more. The men return to their card game, unaware of my presence.
I meander stealthily into a garage adjacent to the gatehouse, covered in charming graffiti that reads “PUSSY FART.” I enter the space and realize it’s a waste room. I pull out my disposable camera provided to me by my boss at Masry & Vititoe and capture the scene. Click. Suddenly, I hear a voice, another man. “Is someone there?” I notice a back door and dip out, unseen.
I dash toward the first of many large warehouse spaces, vacant of most machinery that likely filled the room at one point, but the fantasy manifests their presence. They’re loud. I climb a ladder next to the entrance to see the full scope of the impending environmental catastrophe. More pictures, click click click.
I hop off the ladder and begin to make my way down a long corridor that feels longer than a football field. I walk by passageways that veer off both sides in the open warehouse. They’re jam-packed with smaller workrooms blasting more sounds of machines whirring and sputtering and the echoes of steelworkers barking orders. Foremen are making their rounds to inspect productivity, the speakers on the walls blast instructions and calls for employees.
I peer to my left and right and notice cement pits every few hundred feet, each of them filled with murky, acidic-looking water. I pretend that I have a test tube and scoop my hand down into the billowing polluted pools and splash myself with the water as I collect samples. I panic because I don’t know just how poisonous the pools are, and I don’t know how far down the toxic waste seeps into the ground. It’s unclear how many of these pools litter the sixty-eight acres of this rotting property that boasts eight large buildings; regardless, one thing’s clear: they’re poisoning the planet, and I need to stop it. (I later discover that no class-action lawsuit was brought against Al Tech; just a 1999 agreement with the State of NY boasting $16.6 million of taxpayer dollars to clean up PCBs, heavy metals, and other hazardous waste brought on by the plant owners.)
As I exit the first of the eight warehouses I eventually explore that day, I stumble upon a wall covered in eyeballs, peering into the haze of the autumn afternoon. I’m being watched, but I’m unafraid: This work is for the greater good of humanity, I decide. I step into a second large warehouse space, taking note of the graffiti message next to the scrap metal entryway which reads, “WOMEN HAVE A PLACE IN THE HOUSE & THE SENATE.” I ponder what this means, and I think about the destructive history of the patriarchy. I have a hard time pinpointing the plethora of prideful problems around the world on women. For thousands of years, men have by and large been running the show. Look where it’s gotten us: greenhouse gas emissions, oil spills, animal extinctions, systems and structures that have caused nothing but harm to the planet.
I poke my head into a foreman’s office, and I wonder what a world in which women have flooded leadership positions might look like. I picture a much more resourceful, equitable, even-keeled, compassionate place where more people feel comfortable in their own skin. And a planet that hasn’t been damaged by incessant, irreparable harm, like what’s happened here at the Al Tech Specialty Steel Corporation in Colonie, NY. In fact, quite the opposite. At the very least, shouldn’t we aim for a balance of power?
I pass through the scrap metal entryway and enter yet another giant open space, but this one feels different. The light streaming in from a large side office offers a warm glow, and I beeline to it. As I pass through, I realize it’s all there: shelves to organize folders and papers. Desks filled with junk. A metal swivel chair with torn leather accents. A whiteboard. The intercom mic, the radiator, and the Chromalon air control center. And a magazine sprawled open to an ad for Joe Boxer, featuring a cast of all different kinds of men showing off their favorite underwear. I look up, and a foreman in the corner of the office stares directly at me. He asks if I want to take the magazine with me and winks. I tell him that I’m all set, and I ask if I need to clock out for the day, but he’s already vanished into thin air.
They’re not even onto me.
I pour through imaginary documents in the empty filing cabinet, searching for proof that Al Tech knows it’s poisoning the groundwater. Then, like a shot in the dark, I happen upon them: there’s the proof. Right there, dated 1986, with a report on the high levels of toxicity in the ground. I snag them and make my way to an adjoining office to make copies on an imaginary Xerox machine, but before I do, I snag an orange helmet off the foreman’s desk so that my undercover operation goes unnoticed.
I head outside and step into the sunlight of a magnificent open courtyard where trucks rumble through with deliveries and worker bees scurry to their various posts after lunch breaks and spot a cement block with graffiti art of a woman smoking a cigarette. “That’s bad for you,” I bark. “Don’t you know we’re in a pandemic that’s obliterating people’s lungs?” She looks at me cooly, takes a drag, and blows it out. “What do I care?” she gasps through a cough. “I’m just 2D.”
I peer up into the sun as the whir of factory machines becomes an echoey, distant melody as I fall back into reality, only for a moment. I see a tree some twenty feet from me. I want to remember this moment: we’re in the thick of a global pandemic where I’ve been given the opportunity and privilege to escape the daily onslaught of bad news and play pretend outside all day, just like I did when I was a kid. And to make art while doing it. I position my phone in the tree, hit the timer function, and press the button. Then I bolt to the cement block and hop up and wait for the final three seconds of the countdown while pondering exactly how to capture this second in time when I’ve safely connected with the world inside this sanctuary of imagination, levitating above the noise and the rage and the sorrow and the grief. And that’s what I do: I levitate. I sail above the sadness and uncertainty and anguish and confusion. It only lasts a moment, but there I am, floating, dangling in the air. A suspension of disbelief.
When I come to and my feet hit the ground, a siren blares. Loud. Overwhelming. Scary. I turn and see medics bolting towards an infirmary about a hundred yards away. I grab my phone and camera case and follow them. By the time we reach the medical unit, the sirens have stopped, and the ghosts are gone. The sign above the door reads “FIRST AID OFFICE,” and another eyeball watches me.
I pull the green door open and step inside. Papers litter the ground, a supervisor’s safety manual on top of a blue blanket at my feet. I look up and see a hospital bed with the message “SLEEP TO DIE” sprawling on the back. I peer over and see a filthy mattress and an audiometer machine, the Tracor RA 400. I recall my elementary school nurse operating a similar kind of device during our annual hearing and vision tests at school.
As I look closer, it dawns on me: Why would a steel company have a full medical facility? “Don’t ask too many questions,” a nurse mutters without looking up, huddled in the corner, hunched over an examination report. “You better get out of here before they catch you.” Her tone indicates that I need to take her advice, and it’s at that moment that I hear voices, real ones, echoing from a building adjacent to the first aid office. I thank the nurse in a hushed tone and make my exit back out the door I came in.
And just like Erin Brockovich at the moment she’s caught collecting groundwater samples at a PG&E cooling site, I bolt. They’re onto me, and they don’t want me exposing their dirty little secret to the EPA. I run like hell, faster than I ever have, afraid of both the ghosts following me and the real-life humans who have invaded my private sanctuary of imagination. I haul ass, snapping my final photograph of the day, a stunning, multicolored portrait of a lion, atop the entrance to the back of the first warehouse I entered when I arrived on the site of an actual environmental disaster that the EPA actually shut down in 1999 when it was discovered that there was actual groundwater contamination at the Al Tech Specialty Steel Corporation and the company was shut down by order of New York State.
I duck and shimmy through the chainlink barrier, toss open my car doors, throw my stuff in the back while the men trailing me shout at the security guards playing poker who, once again, don’t even notice me. “Stop him!” I jam the key into the ignition, start the car, and furiously rumble off into the gentle light of golden hour, laughing, thrilled that my Erin Brockovich fantasy has only just begun. I drive past the front entrance, past the polluted river, past broken-down homes, past train tracks, and past the expansive view of the Al Tech property until it’s nothing more than a dot in my rearview mirror. I’ve stumbled back into reality as my car blazes onto 787, headed for the NYS Thruway, back to my home in the Hudson Valley, preparing mentally and emotionally and physically for the most devastating winter I’ve ever faced.
But then, I think about the thousands of Americans facing massive healthcare issues because of corporate greed, and I remember Erin Brockovich’s big monologue towards the end of the film when she pops off at the law firm representing PG&E:
I say aloud, “Looks like my pity party is over.”
“Damn right it is,” Erin Brockovich whispers over my shoulder from the backseat of my car as I merge onto the Thruway en route to my home where I plan to enjoy a clean, clear glass of water and count my blessings that I’ve survived another day in a global pandemic, another day in an ongoing environmental pandemic that doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.
And it’s in that moment that I wonder:
Maybe I’ll start acting like Erin Brockovich more often?