HINKLEY, Calif. (AP) - Roberta Walker knew something was wrong when a utility giant agreed to buy her five-acre Mojave Desert property for $250,000.
"Everybody around us was becoming sick, and cats, dogs, and rabbits were dying," said Walker, whose curiosity triggered a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
The seven-year battle waged over contaminated water by Walker and hundreds of Hinkley residents provided the background for the new Julia Roberts movie, "Erin Brockovich," which opens today.
In real life, the street-smart, tough-talking title character was the legal clerk who rallied Hinkley to sue PG&E.
"It's a great opportunity to send our message. Everything in the movie is true," Brockovich said after a Ventura County fund-raising showing of the movie Wednesday night.
Greg Pruett, a spokesman for San Francisco-based PG&E, said Wednesday he has not seen the movie but has viewed televised previews.
"We look at this as a dramatization, not a documentary, and put it in that perspective," he said. "Any movie, including this one, has an incredible luxury of taking facts and intermingling them with drama to create a very entertaining movie."
Walker and her neighbors were among 650 plaintiffs in the 1993 lawsuit that claimed PG&E discharged toxic wastewater into groundwater at its compressor station, exposing residents to cancer-causing chromium 6.
PG&E settled for $333 million four years ago. Another 300 former Hinkley residents have a November court date in their follow-up suit against the utility.
Many of the scenes in "Erin Brockovich" were filmed last summer in Hinkley, a farming community 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Walker said Hollywood did justice to the reality that haunted the town.
"They've changed some story lines, but for the most part it is factual," she said. "The script was accurate."
Attorney Ed Masry, who handled the initial lawsuit and is portrayed in the movie by Albert Finney, believes Walker was the catalyst for the investigation.
"Hollywood did an accurate rendition of the facts," he said. "Erin worked night and day on the case for two years, and during the trial more than a million pages of documents were scanned through computers."
And Brockovich? She still works for Masry, heading the Masry & Vititoe law firm's toxic research department.