Joy Horowitz's "Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School" (Viking) is a dense 350-page book detailing a four-year fight between 1,000 litigants who claimed oil wells at the school caused diseases, such as cancer, and defendants -- including the oil companies, the city of Beverly Hills and school officials -- who said there had been no harmful effects from the (profitable) derricks.
Could it be true that leakage from the derricks and power plant caused incidences of cancer up to three times more than normal, as some experts claim?
Or were people like Erin Brockovich, the celebrity environmental paralegal who took on the case, "ambulance chasers" and "fear-mongerers" relying on junk science, as defendants like Beverly Hills city officials and school administrators said?
As the case is being appealed -- with a partial settlement offer of $10
million from one oil company -- Horowitz, who will receive the Environmental Hero of 2008 award from the Environmental Relief Center on Jan. 31, believes the wells continue to endanger.
The author of "Tessie and Pearlie: A Granddaughter's Story," and the recipient, with her siblings, of the settlement of a case against tobacco companies fought on behalf of her late father, Horowitz spoke to The Jewish Journal about the complicated nuances of the lawsuit, why she thinks her message in "Parts Per Million" has been silenced, how the Jewish community sits at the center of the case and to what lengths people will go to protect their lifestyle.
Jewish Journal: How did you become involved in this story?
Joy Horowitz: I graduated in 1971 and went to my 30th reunion -- it was a year late, in the summer of 2002. A lot of my classmates, whom I was looking forward to seeing, had died. They'd had cancer -- some of them had multiple cancers. When you're a person in your 40s, that's too young. Then the following February of 2003, that's when Erin Brockovich descended on Beverly Hills and started making these allegations between cancer and young graduates. I was very skeptical, but the more I looked into it, the more I found that what was being said publicly was not the reality of what was going on.
JJ: What was going on?
JH: You've got these two industrial sites [the oil derricks and the Sempra power plant], operating at a high school in Beverly Hills.
Over time, there was a major litigation filed, and the number of people with cancer mushroomed. What started off as about 28 graduates with cancer mushroomed into 1,000 plaintiffs, some 400 with cancer. The community said these emissions are inconsequential to the children's health. There are epidemiological studies that suggest otherwise.
JJ: What kind of evidence was there linking disease to the oil wells and power plants?
JH: It depends who you talk to. As far as Beverly Hills High School (BHHS) goes, there were three epidemiological studies:
1) The Los Angeles cancer registry found threefold excess of thyroid cancer among young men living adjacent to Beverly Hills High School. But the author of that study said that her findings lacked statistical significance, so it wasn't really an issue. (Her husband was working as a consultant for one of the defendants.)
2) Richard Clapp's study, out of Boston University's School for Public Health Research, found excess rates of cancer among graduates of BHHS from 1990-2000 -- threefold for Hodgkin's disease, twice the expected amount of thyroid cancer and elevated rates of testicular cancer -- but he was working for the plaintiff's law firm, so his study was ruled inadmissible by the judge, because it hadn't been peer-reviewed and published.
3) There was a study that was never made public by Philip Cole, a retired epidemiologist who did a lot of work for industry at the University of Alabama. The school district cited Dr. Cole's study as evidence that there wasn't a higher rate of cancer among students at Beverly Hills High School, but the study was never made public, so I don't know what the study is.
JJ: In November 2006, the judge summarily dismissed the first 12 plaintiff's cases. In October 2007, Frontier Oil offered a $10 million settlement to plaintiffs. Why do you think that happened?
JH: For a couple of reasons. In order to get to trial relatively quickly -- it still took three years -- they had both the defense and plaintiffs agree to select six cancers. The strongest cases never got to court.
The other thing is the defendants, which included Sempra and Chevron, Frontier Oil and Venoco, continued to be willing to spend an unbelievable amount of money to defend these cases.
JJ: What do you think should be done now?
JH: Nobody has ever done a cohort study comparing the population at [this] high school to another high school. That would be a really good first step.
JJ: Why didn't they do that?
JH: They didn't want to invest in that. Had they invested in that, as opposed to all this money they spent on the lawsuit, that might have been an interesting step, but instead, they took great pains to keep information from getting public.
By and large, public health officials hate doing cluster investigations, because they're almost impossible to determine, to establish a link between environmental factors and clusters. And statistically, it could just be by chance that there are all these extra cancers in this particular area. Historically, there have been very few proven. Most of the clusters that are proven are among occupational workers exposed to very high levels of carcinogens. The classic one is asbestos exposure, and mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lung), which my dad got from smoking Kents with a filter. My dad died in 1996.
JJ: Was that part of the motivation for your book?
JH: It's part of who I am. My mother and father taught me how important it is to insist that we make links between environmental factors and cancers. He spent the last part of his life doing exactly that: filing this lawsuit against Lorillard and winning.
He was the first American to beat a tobacco company in court. I'm very proud of him for that. The ultimate settlement [of $2 million] happened after he and my mother died.
JJ: What changes have been made at Beverly Hills High School?
JH: There are methane monitors in the boys bathroom by the football field. The oil operator, Venoco, has supposedly spent $60,000 for fence line monitors to be able to determine when hydrocarbons and other toxic gases venture outside of Venoco property onto the school, but that's about it.
JJ: But you think it's not enough?
JH: At a minimum, I think that the community needs to take a really hard look at why it's so important that it continue to allow these industrial sites to operate where their kids are. Now that they're not part of the lawsuit anymore, it would behoove them to engage in real discussions about when oil production will stop.... You know, when I started this book, oil was valued at $30 a barrel, and now it's $100. I don't see them stopping anytime soon.
JJ: How much do the city and school make?
JH: It depends on how much production is going on at the time; the last time I checked, it was roughly a half a million for schools and half a million for the city -- now that the value of oil is as high as it is, they could be making a whole lot more. The residents get residuals -- I think quarterly payments. They're not that much, maybe a couple of thousand a year, but it's enough to make people not to be too interested in the possibility of change. People like their residual payments.
JJ: Is that why you think the city and residents were so opposed to the case?
JH: There's been no solid proof their kids have cancer as a result of oil production. So they can rely on scientific uncertainty and promote that.
It's also about property values. This is Beverly Hills. And even though [about] 60 percent of residents live in apartments there, I think that people are really blinded by the image of what Beverly Hills means. You would think that kids and health would be primary. You would hope that it would be. My book shows otherwise, and it's very sad that that's the case.
JJ: What has happened since the publication of the book? Has it spurred any activity?
JH: When the book came out in July, there was a deafening silence about it in Beverly Hills. I had hoped it might stir some conversation at the least. It didn't. For a while I thought, "Is it my paranoia? No one's responding to my book! What is it?" Then I found out there was this talking points memo, [from the city of Beverly Hills and the school] suggesting I had a specific point of view, and that I misstated the facts. Why do they need to do that? Why not just own up to the reality of the truth? It's like shooting the messenger, as opposed to dealing with the reality of the situation: There are these toxic chemicals being spewed onto the campus; nobody can exactly prove those toxic chemicals are causing those kids to get sick, and therefore it gives them a free pass.
JJ: How does the Jewish community play a part in this case?
JH: Part of the denial is cultural -- initially the issue was raised by members of the Persian community in Beverly Hills. There is this great and undiscussed antipathy in town between the long-standing citizens there and the newer arrivals from Iran. Because it was the Iranian American parents who were raising this as an issue, they were basically dismissed; their concerns were dismissed. Which was really upsetting to me.
For me, as a Jewish mother, family is everything. How is it possible that this community of Jews could allow their children to be put in harm's way?
Joy Horowitz will speak on "Making Decisions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty: Beverly Hills High School and the Precautionary Principle" at the Beverly Hills Library on Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. The Environmental Relief Center will present her with an award for Environmental Hero of 2008.