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Erin Brockovich's weird science.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

“This is not a publicity stunt,” Erin Brockovich-Ellis informs the crowd gathered at the exclusive Beverly Hills Hotel. “This is not about making another movie.” It’s March, and the famous environmental crusader is speaking before hundreds of Beverly Hills High School parents and alumni crammed into the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom. It’s a strange confluence of Hollywood story lines: The heroine of the 2000 film Erin Brockovich—whom Julia Roberts won an Oscar portraying—is here to warn that current and former students at the school on which “Beverly Hills 90210” was based are being poisoned by toxic emissions from nearby oil wells.

As just about anybody who has set foot in a multiplex knows, in the mid-’90s Brockovich and her boss, lawyer Ed Masry, helped uncover groundwater contamination in the central California town of Hinkley and as a result won a massive settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). (As the film’s promo line put it, “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees.”) In the decade since the Hinkley case, Masry and Brockovich-Ellis (she changed her name after remarrying four years ago) have led several more class-action suits against alleged corporate polluters, with mixed results. Tonight, their crusade has brought them to Beverly Hills.

Dressed in a dark business suit with a low-cut white top underneath, Brockovich-Ellis explains that she was approached a few months earlier at one of her book signings by a young woman, Lori Moss, who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and thyroid cancer. Brockovich-Ellis’s interest was piqued: After all, Moss was only 28 years old and said she had already had two types of cancer. Where did you grow up? Brockovich-Ellis asked. Beverly Hills, said Moss. Were there industrial sites around? Moss explained that oil wells abutted the campus of her high school, known colloquially as “Beverly.”

So Brockovich-Ellis came to Beverly to test the air. And what she found was shocking. “I was just sitting in the bleachers,” she tells the gathered parents, “and we got benzene readings that were at very alarming levels--at least five times higher than on the 405 [Freeway].” (Benzene, a natural component of crude oil, is a human carcinogen and is commonly found at low levels in urban areas because it is an automobile emission.) And it’s not only the wells still operating next to Beverly that pose a threat, she explains: The school’s football field sits “right over abandoned wells” that were never properly capped. “And now they’re leaking,” Brockovich-Ellis reports. “I would not want my children playing on that field. It’s very heavily contaminated.”

As many in the crowd gasp, Brockovich-Ellis describes the results of this toxic exposure: More than 150 students and alumni have contracted cancer (a number that will jump to 300 soon after the meeting). Hodgkin’s disease—which Brockovich-Ellis says is associated with benzene—is occurring at 16 times normal levels, thyroid cancer at 14 times normal levels. The average age of a Beverly student or alumnus diagnosed with cancer is just 33. Dr. James Dahlgren, a medical consultant working with Brockovich-Ellis, briefly takes the podium and cautions, “These all could be an aberration,” before adding, “but you have a whole cluster of rare and unusual cancers. That’s why it’s probably more than a statistical blip.”

Then Masry, Brockovich-Ellis’s boss and partner-inactivism (played by Albert Finney in the movie), steps up to the podium and drops another bombshell: Not only are the wells causing cancer, the city has known about the risks all along. Working through a PowerPoint presentation, Masry, a small man in his early seventies looking somewhat disheveled in a suit a size too big, pulls up a copy of a document known as an environmental checklist form. Previous owners of the wells submitted the form in 1984, when their lease to operate the rigs was up for renewal. Masry reads aloud one of the questions, “Will the proposal result in the creation of any health hazard or potential health hazard?” The question offered three possible boxes to check: Yes, No, or Maybe. The check was on Maybe. “Maybe?” Masry bellows. “These guys suspected there might be a problem. And yet they never did any testing.” As Beverly parents turn to one another in disbelief, Masry reads aloud from another city document: “The [oil-well] project will result in substantial economic benefits by the school district and city.” The school district and city, Masry explains, are making hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from the wells.

One middle-aged father stands up and tries to challenge Masry. “Mister Masry,” he begins, “I have spoken with [local health officials], and they say you have not shared your data.” Amid murmurs from the crowd, Masry shouts, “Shut up! Quiet! I have made appointments to do split samples. I can’t dance anymore than I already am.” The parents cheer. Then another father speaks, his voice rising above the crowd. “I will take it upon myself to shut those wells down!” he shouts, amid chants of “Shut the pumps! Shut the pumps!”

Masry and Brockovich-Ellis’s claims are very dramatic. In all likelihood, they are also wrong. A few months after the presentation at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Brockovich-Ellis will explain to People and The Economist, “I have 300 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.” It may not require a rocket scientist, but it certainly requires some compelling scientific evidence. And the preponderance of evidence suggests that the Beverly oil wells are not having any discernable impact on the health of Beverly students. Nor is Beverly an isolated case. Many of Brockovich-Ellis and Masry’s other toxic-contamination lawsuits have been supported by questionable scientific evidence at best, dating all the way back to the case that made them famous.

Southern California isn’t just a mecca for automobiles; it’s also full of oil. The first deposits were discovered and tapped at the turn of the twentieth century. Since then, more than 50 oil fields have been found and more than one billon barrels of oil extracted. Few towns have benefited from the boom more--or probably needed it less--than Beverly Hills. In the early 1900s, prospectors discovered that the wealthy enclave lay directly above a giant deposit, estimated at more than 100 million barrels. On the grounds of what is now Beverly, the first wells were drilled in 1906, predating the school by 20 years. The wells on the site operated on and off for years. Some, including those under what is now the school’s football field, were abandoned and capped. In the early ‘80s, with production declining, the owners drilled 17 new wells, which continue to pump today.

The March meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel wasn’t the first time Beverly parents heard that the long-standing wells might be harming their kids. A month earlier, L.A.’s CBS affiliate, kcbs, broke the story during sweeps week. The report--headlined “toxic school?”--relied heavily on Masry and Brockovich-Ellis’s allegations. “If your child goes to Beverly Hills High School, you should pay specific attention to this story,” it began, “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.” (The producer of the segment, Claudia Bill-de la Pena, serves on the city council of Thousand Oaks along with Masry. And, as was first reported in The Beverly Hills Courier—the town’s free weekly, which has distinguished itself with aggressive reporting on the case—Masry and his wife have both donated money to Bill-de la Pena’s bids for office.)

In the weeks following the kcbs report and the March meeting, Beverly Hills was in near pandemonium. Just a month after the meeting, Masry filed 216 claims with the city, each one from a student or alumnus who alleged the wells had poisoned them. In addition to Masry’s claims against the city, he filed suit in June against the wells’ owner, a regional oil company named Venoco; two other oil companies that were connected to the wells by subsidiaries; and Sempra Energy, which owns an office-building heating-and-cooling unit on the same block. (Masry has not publicized specific allegations against Sempra.) By early November, the number of claims would swell to 664, mostly from alumni, including 370 claiming cancer and 182 claimants demanding medical monitoring and punitive damages based on “fear” or “risk” of “developing cancer.” The other claims run the gamut, from “ear-ringing” and “frequent tingling sensation,” to “urinary problems,” “headaches,” and “insomnia.”

As Masry and Brockovich-Ellis spent the spring and summer signing up clients--and some parents threatened a school boycott, which never materialized--a host of city and state agencies began conducting environmental tests at Beverly. At first, in February, they seemed to find something: The wells had occasionally been venting natural gas into the air. For years, the local gas company had bought natural gas from the wells, and, when the gas company decided to implement stricter enforcement of its BTU rating for natural gas during the summer of last year, the company found that gas from the wells at Beverly did not meet the new requirements and stopped buying the gas. Since Venoco couldn’t pump oil without also releasing natural gas, it simply vented the gas, which can contain traces of benzene and other contaminants. Venoco says it believed it had approval to vent--and at least one state official involved in the Beverly case agreed. Regulators also found that a device meant to control the purity of the natural gas coming from the wells, called an amine unit, had improperly functioning filters and had been modified without a proper permit. As a result of the improper filters, the amine unit discharged a small amount of benzene. Though the findings caused concern, neither issue seemed to increase health risk. While natural gas can contain small amounts of contaminants, “it isn’t particularly harmful,” says Sam Atwood, a spokesman for Southern California’s Air Quality Management District (scaqmd), the region’s air-quality agency. “It’s basically methane”--the same stuff human beings emit when they break wind. As for the amine unit, the amount of benzene it gave off turned out to be so minute as to be undetectable in the air around Beverly. And, once the filters were replaced weeks after the test, the unit emitted no benzene. Whatever the case, regulators asked Venoco to shut the wells down, which it did in February. (Despite a petition signed by about 2,000 parents, the wells opened again in late October, after Venoco agreed to install continuous air-monitoring equipment and paid a $10,000 settlement that admitted no wrongdoing.)

While the scaqmd dealt with the apparent violation, health officials looked more closely at Masry and Brockovich-Ellis’s specific allegations: Regulators tested the air for benzene and other pollutants while the wells were venting gas, toxicologists took ground samples, epidemiologists looked at cancer rates, and state inspectors examined both the active and the abandoned wells at Beverly.

Everything came up clean. The air wasn’t particularly polluted (at least by L.A. standards). Cancer rates in the neighborhood were along the same lines as other white, wealthy neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The ground wasn’t contaminated with toxins. The old wells weren’t leaking, and the new ones were well-maintained.

Beginning in February and continuing throughout the spring, the scaqmd, considered the country’s toughest anti-pollution agency, tested the air around Beverly six times--at multiple spots during each test. The average reading for benzene--the only chemical alleged to be leaking from the wells that is classified as a human carcinogen--was about one part per billion, typical for Southern California. (State regulators define the limit at which no significant health effects can be expected over a lifetime of constant exposure to benzene at 20 parts per billion.) The scaqmd sent a letter to parents in April stating that the agency had found “no readings of benzene, hexane, and air toxic levels that are considered abnormal.” Consultants hired by the school district also tested the air and came up with similar results. (An environmental consultant hired by a parent said the scaqmd and city-sponsored reports didn’t conclusively find that there were no health risks. And, as part of its agreement to reopen, Venoco agreed to make an overall assessment of the health risks.)

Masry argued to me that the scaqmd efforts were “grossly negligent.” The tests, he claims, were only conducted for a few minutes and only when the wells were turned off. “They weren’t worried about injury to kids or to schoolteachers; they were just worried about getting the money.” It’s true that the scaqmd, a regional government agency, receives a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per year from the wells for standard permit fees. But, contrary to Masry’s other assertions, as the scaqmd explained in a detailed letter to parents, it tested the air for eight-hour increments and did so while the wells were operating.

While the scaqmd has been open with its data and testing methodology, Masry and Brockovich-Ellis have not. When city officials repeatedly asked Masry to share his overall test results, Masry repeatedly refused. In the first week of June, the Beverly Hills City Council forced the issue, serving Masry a legislative subpoena (the municipal equivalent of a congressional subpoena). The subpoena required Masry to turn in his data three weeks later. Masry balked and continued withholding his test results, saying that they were part of attorney work product--that is, analyses a lawyer might use to build his case. Judge Valerie Baker, of the Los Angeles Superior Court, didn’t buy Masry’s argument and on July 16 ordered Masry to produce the data or face fines. Finally, on July 22, nearly two months after the initial subpoena, Masry gave his test findings to Beverly Hills.

Nearly all of Masry’s data showed normal levels of benzene. The highest benzene readings in Masry’s tests are from an instantaneous “grab sample” showing benzene at 18 parts per billion--still two parts per billion less than the state’s threshold. Masry’s data states that another test conducted simultaneously that sampled the air for eight hours shows no measurable amount of benzene. The head of research at the lab Masry used to compile his data told the Courier, “When you’re doing sampling, you don’t want to base health-risk decisions on a single sample result; that would be irresponsible.”

The failure to demonstrate elevated levels of benzene in the air isn’t the only weakness in Masry and Brockovich-Ellis’s case. It also appears unlikely that benzene causes the types of cancer that they allege are rampant at Beverly. “At high dosages, benzene can cause certain kinds of leukemia,” says Dr. Thomas Mack, chief of the epidemiology division at the University of Southern California’s medical school. “But there is no significant evidence it causes Hodgkin’s disease or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.” (Masry says he has experts and studies that document a link between benzene and those cancers. But, when I asked to speak to the experts or for citations to the studies, he said, “Why would I do that? We’ll wait until we depose experts and see who is right and who is wrong.”)

It’s not even clear that there are increased rates of Hodgkin’s disease or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma around Beverly. In April, Masry told the Associated Press that the school’s cancer rate is 20 to 30 times the national average. “I’ve never seen cancers this high,” Masry told me. “I’ve never even heard of them this high.” At a preliminary hearing for the case in July, a Beverly Hills city attorney asked Masry’s firm, Masry & Vititoe, to produce evidence backing up their publicly stated numbers. A lawyer for the firm, Rick Ottaiano, asserted that he didn’t have to hand over the information, again invoking attorney work product. But Judge Baker rejected that argument, and Ottaiano acknowledged that his firm had no data on the rate of cancer at Beverly, stating, “There has been no commissioned epidemiological study or population study.”

Ottaiano seems misinformed. While Masry & Vititoe apparently did not conduct any scientific study of cancer rates around Beverly, the cancer registry program at the University of Southern California did. The program (which epidemiology chief Mack participates in) tracks all cancers in L.A. County and looks for trends, breaking down cases by race, age, gender, socioeconomic status, neighborhood, etc. After the kcbs report, the registry looked at the number of cancers in the neighborhood surrounding Beverly. In the spring, it released its report, stating, “The observed numbers of Hodgkin’s lymphoma [aka Hodgkin’s disease], non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and thyroid cancer among white residents were within the expected range.” (The researchers explained that they couldn’t calculate cancers among non-whites in that part of Beverly Hills because “there were too few cases.”)

It’s true that the study did not calculate the rate of cancer at the high school itself. Mack explains that, while cancer rates broken down by census tracts are readily available, calculating the rate of various cancers among alumni would be a far more involved, expensive undertaking. “You’d first need to decide what your denominator is,” says Mack. “Everybody who attended Beverly for at least a month, for at least a year? How about summer school? And then you need to track down the people and then their medical files.” In Mack’s estimation, there’s no reason to do any of that. Since the benzene around Beverly is at normal levels, he says, “there’s simply no evidence that it is a cause of concern.”

As for what may seem to a layman like a large number of Hodgkin’s and other cancers among Beverly students and young alumni, Mack says the numbers aren’t atypical. Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma often afflict young adults and, for reasons that aren’t clear, are more prevalent in wealthy areas. (The leading theory is that children with many siblings have a better chance of early exposure to certain viruses that make them more resistant to lymphomas--and wealthier parents tend to have fewer children.)

Epidemiologists, including Mack, acknowledge that they can’t say definitely that something in the air isn’t causing a rise in cancer rates. If benzene from Beverly’s wells had caused two or three cases of cancer--resulting in the rate of cancer in the neighborhood increasing only slightly-- epidemiologists probably wouldn’t notice it, since the neighborhood’s overall cancer rate might still be within the range considered normal. (Epidemiologists typically don’t think anything less than one-and-a-half times the expected rate is significant.)

Still, Mack says there’s no reason for concern about Beverly students. “We’re always dealing with levels of probability; we can’t avoid that,” he says. “But taking a neighborhood that has a few cancers and then trying to figure out where they came from usually isn’t helpful. Instead, you look at the known risks. In this case, is there any evidence that benzene at the levels found by Beverly causes cancer? No. You’re just as likely to get cancer from your car stereo.”

Finally, there is the supposed smoking gun that Masry waved about at the Beverly Hills Hotel: the environmental checklist in which the wells’ owner at the time, the Beverly Hills Oil Company, had checked a box saying “Maybe” the wells would cause adverse health effects. What Masry and Brockovich-Ellis didn’t mention was that the checklist was only a follow-up form. The original environmental-impact report, prepared by an environmental consulting firm for Beverly Hills, detailed the wells’ potential effects on the air and how to mitigate them. It concluded that the wells, which like other wells in urban areas would be electrically powered to avoid polluting, would “emit minimal pollution.” The only area that merited concern—and thus the “Maybe” on the check form—was diesel fumes from construction trucks at the site.

Masry’s contention that the wells were never tested for problems is also misleading. The scaqmd requires Venoco to test the wells for leaks on a quarterly basis and promptly report any problems or face fines and closure. Before this year, Venoco’s Beverly Hills site had never been cited for a violation. Indeed, Venoco had won an award from state regulators for running a particularly clean operation.

The lack of evidence that the Beverly wells pose a health risk doesn’t surprise Dr. Cyrus Rangan, director of toxics epidemiology at L.A. County’s Department of Health Services. “There are lots of oil wells around Los Angeles,” he says. “And there’s no evidence that there’s elevated cancer rates around any of them. Why this one?” He adds, “I look at three big things in my job. Is there an occurrence of disease out of proportion to what we would expect? What is something that might cause that? And is there a connection between the two? Masry and Brockovich’s assertions don’t satisfy any of those conditions.”

If there’s no compelling evidence that benzene levels at Beverly are dangerously high, nor that cancer rates among current and former students are elevated, nor that the former would cause the latter even if both were true, then why are hundreds of Beverly parents and alumni suing?

In part, it’s because of Brockovich-Ellis’s reputation: People have seen the movie, and they trust her. And much of the movie is accurate. Brockovich-Ellis successfully demanded a job from Masry after he failed to win her a settlement in a car-crash claim. In 1992, Masry was hired by a resident of Hinkley after the local power company, PG&E, acknowledged contaminating some of the town’s groundwater with chromium-6, a human carcinogen. As Brockovich-Ellis worked on the case for Masry, she began, in her estimation, to find evidence that PG&E’s contamination of the groundwater was causing people in town to get sick. Brockovich-Ellis collected clients, and Masry sued. The case went to mediation, and, in 1996, PG&E settled for $333 million, one of the biggest environmental settlements ever made. “We screwed up,” said a PG&E spokesman at the time.

But there are elements of the story that are still subject to dispute. For instance, Brockovich-Ellis alleged that the local water board had tried to keep files about the contamination undercover, a point that the movie emphasizes. Hisam Baqai, supervising engineer for the local water board, insists it isn’t true. “I don’t know how she came up with secret stuff from the files,” he says. “All our files were public.”

There’s also a somewhat larger point the movie mischaracterizes: Although there was contamination in Hinkley, there’s virtually no evidence that it made residents sick. Various studies have found that chromium-6 is only carcinogenic when inhaled, not when ingested, as Hinkley residents would have done when they drank the contaminated water. As a 1998 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report put it, “No data were located in the available literature that suggested that chromium-6 is carcinogenic by the oral route.” (The reason, say researchers, is that stomach acid turns the toxins into chromium-3, a harmless substance that can be found in food.) Moreover, a joint federal-state study conducted in 2000 concluded that, while some chromium-6 did indeed make it into some residents’ wells, it affected a small number of houses, about 15. (The study’s authors note that their findings aren’t conclusive since they didn’t test until years after the contamination began and that, theoretically, there may have been significant airborne contamination years earlier.) “It was very localized,” says Dr. John Morgan, the epidemiologist who oversees the registry charged with tracking cancers in Hinkley. “And the concentration of chromium-6 in the most contaminated wells was in the order of one-quarter-millionth to one-five-millionth the level that was linked with nasopharyngeal carcinoma,” the only type of cancer that he says has been linked to the chemical. “Jumping to cancer from that is a quantum leap in logic.”

There is also no evidence that there even was a cancer cluster in Hinkley. In 1995, Morgan looked for exactly that and didn’t find it. His ensuing report described the “absence of a cancer excess” and concluded “that the number of new cancer cases observed in the census tract encompassing Hinkley does not differ significantly from the number expected.” According to Morgan, neither Brockovich-Ellis nor Masry ever asked the registry to look for a cluster. “It’s bizarre,” he says, “to claim a cancer excess and then never ask to investigate a cancer excess. Of course, it’s only bizarre if you’re trying to get to the truth. If you’re trying to win a lawsuit, then perhaps better to say there may be an increase than to know there’s not.”

Since Hinkley, Masry and Brockovich-Ellis have pushed similar claims elsewhere, with what appears to be diminishing success. Their most notable victory took place in the Northern California town of Crockett. In summer 1994, Crockett residents were exposed to a potentially toxic cloud for about two weeks, the result of a leak from a nearby Unocal refinery. The leak—of a chemical cocktail called Catacarb—went on for so long because the oil company delayed notifying officials while the refinery kept operating. By the time Unocal copped to the leak, so much Catacarb was around Crockett that the company had to send crews around town washing off cars and windows. Unocal eventually agreed to pay $3 million in criminal and civil fines and, in April 1997, settled a class-action suit, in which Masry & Vititoe was one of many firms suing, reportedly for $80 million.

Masry and Brockovich-Ellis were less successful in a lawsuit on behalf of residents of Avila Beach, a town along California’s central coast, near San Luis Obispo. There has been an oil-storage facility near the town since the early 1900s, and, in the late ‘80s, authorities found that pipes running below Avila—also owned by Unocal—had leaked. Health officials didn’t find evidence that the spill had come to the surface, but in late 1996 residents nonetheless banded together and, represented by—among others—a self-described small-town lawyer named Jim Duenow, sued Unocal. As Duenow prepared his case, Brockovich-Ellis came to town. Duenow remembers her as being persuasive. “She is a fine-looking lady,” he says. “I would have signed anything she handed me.” Brockovich-Ellis soon began signing up clients of her own and testing the beach. Before long, she announced that the spill had come to the surface and that it was making people sick. A report early the next year from Masry’s law firm, as reported in the San Luis Obispo New Times, concluded, “Adults and children who frequent the beach engaging in typical beach activities, such as playing in the sand, burying themselves in the sand and sunning themselves would appear to be at great risk.”

Duenow, whose case depended primarily on the effect the leaks had on homeowners’ property values, says he also researched the possibility that they might cause health problems. “It just wasn’t there,” he says now. “None of our clients had health damages related to the contamination. ... There just weren’t maintainable health claims.”

As in Beverly Hills, county and independent toxicologists weren’t able to replicate Brockovich-Ellis’s findings. “We sampled air, sand, groundwater,” says Alvin Greenberg, a toxicologist who oversaw a report for the county investigating the claims. “We never found evidence that subsurface contamination had come up.” And, as in Beverly Hills, Masry and Brockovich-Ellis avoided sharing their data. “She accused me at a community meeting of not properly reviewing her data,” recalls Greenberg. “I apologized and said I would examine it if she sent it to me. I never heard from her again.”

Asked today about the disparity between the county’s findings and his own allegations, Masry charges, “The county was concerned about getting sued so they didn’t find toxins. ... We find that all the time with governmental agencies. They’re just trying to cover their ass.” (Brockovich-Ellis declined repeated requests for comment.)

With their health claims falling apart, Masry retreated and reportedly settled with Unocal in 1999 for a relatively small sum for their roughly 60 clients: $3 million. The modest settlement angered residents who had been led to believe that Unocal had poisoned them. Masry and Brockovich-Ellis “came in and dramatized what was going on and got everyone hooked,” one former client told the SLO New Times. “Nobody was happy with these lawyers, nobody.”

Another environmental-contamination claim Masry’s firm was involved in between Hinkley and Beverly never even made it to the lawsuit stage. In early 1998, the firm charged that Fontana, an industrial town about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, was contaminated with mercury. Fontana borders an acid pit created in the 1950s by companies that dumped millions of gallons of waste—it has long been an EPA Superfund site. Masry’s experts, after hearing media reports about a parent in town who thought that toxins might have been responsible for the death of her daughter, showed up and said they suspected mercury had leaked from the pit and spread into town. The result, one resident told the local paper, was “pandemonium and panic.” “People started putting their houses up for sale,” recalls Fontana Mayor Mark Nuaimi, who at the time was on the city council. Nuaimi and other city officials asked Masry to share his findings, so that, if there was a problem, they could address it. Masry, again, resisted. “They came up with excuses when we asked for their evidence,” says Nuaimi. “When we asked to be escorted to a site, they refused to go there.”

When city health officials, accompanied by residents, took samples, they found no trace of mercury. Masry “made allegations that were never substantiated and accused agencies of cover-up,” says Nuaimi, who notes that Masry eventually left without filing suit. “They feed off the hysteria and fear of the people, at least that’s what we found in our situation. It really is a story of crying wolf.” (Masry says he doesn’t recall his firm’s involvement in Fontana.)

The Beverly Hills case is still in the beginning stages, with lawyers just beginning to joust. Depositions haven’t even been taken yet, and it will likely be another year or two before the case makes it to trial. But it may not come to that. According to legal scholars, 98 percent of tort cases get settled. And, while it’s certainly helpful to have the facts on your side, you can get a large settlement without them. “There can be all sorts of reasons for settling: Insurance issues, p.r. issues, et cetera,” says Margaret Berger, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. “Dying children do not make a popular picture.”

Indeed, the Beverly case has already taken a toll on the defendants: In August, a Texas oil company, Holly Corporation, effectively pulled out of its $450 million deal to merge with Frontier Oil, one of the companies named in the Beverly suit. Citing the lawsuit as the reason, the company tried to change the terms of the deal, demanding all cash instead of Frontier stock. Frontier refused and has sued for breach of contract.

If the case has already proved a loser for the oil companies involved, it has already proved a p.r. windfall for Masry and Brockovich-Ellis. And why not? It’s the perfect combination of stories: kids with cancer, “Beverly Hills 90210,” and a real-life, Hollywood-endorsed hero. Sure enough, the suit has been covered by media from New Zealand to Sweden, including CNN, “Good Morning America,” and “Today.” Most of the coverage, unsurprisingly, is deferential toward Masry and Brockovich-Ellis.

Such attention is particularly helpful to Brockovich-Ellis, who is currently trying to cement her status as a celebrity folk hero. Since January, she has been hosting a new TV show on the Lifetime Channel entitled “Final Justice.” (It’s described on the program’s website as “True stories of ordinary women who fought back against the system and won. ... Hosted by the underdog heroine herself.”) Brockovich-Ellis can also be found on the back of Organic Valley milk cartons as a spokesperson for the environmental group Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, which offers an “Erin Brockovich Action Kit” encouraging people to join the coalition and support its mission “to protect children from toxic substances.” And she has been trying her hand at acting, performing in a recent Los Angeles-area production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

There is even a chance that Erin Brockovich II may be coming to the box office. Brockovich-Ellis, of course, told the reporters assembled at the Beverly Hills Hotel, “This is not about making another movie.” But, in September, “Celebrity Justice,” an “Entertainment Tonight”-esque, publicity-driven show, reported, “Well-placed sources tell `C.J.’ the sequel is a go, ... with Masry, Brockovich, and director Steven Soderbergh on board to parlay this latest adventure into Erin Brockovich Two.” Brockovich-Ellis declined to comment.