SATELLITE BEACH, Fla. – Famed activist Erin Brockovich's rallying cry Saturday to this small city marked a seismic shift and long-awaited validation in their fight for answers and a cleanup, survivors said, culminating years of pleas for help from cancer survivors — one of them an oncologist.
This time they're not going away. This time, Brockovich has got their back.
But the rest is up to them.
"I want to assure you: Superman's not coming," Brockovich told a crowd of about 350 packed into the Kingdom Gate Worship Center. "I'm not here to save the day. But there's a room full of people that can."
Brockovich urged the audience to press on, assured them that her team's in for the long haul, and threw some verbal fuel to a fire that's already been lit under this beachside community. Some residents are doing their own sampling, searching or even digging in their own back yards to get to the bottom of cancer fears in their community.
Brockovich was the legal clerk behind the successful case against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in the early 1990s. Her story inspired the 2000 award-winning film of her namesake, in which Julia Roberts played the title role and scored a best actress Oscar.
In getting Brockovich here, cancer survivor Dr. Julie Clift Greenwalt, a Satellite High School grad, played a leading role. She wrote the activist for weeks, asking for her help in solving the cancer and contamination mysteries long plaguing the Satellite Beach and South Patrick Shores area.
Dozens of cancer survivors were asked to stand Saturday.
Dean Ferry, of Merritt Island, held up a photo of his 26-year-old daughter, Ally, who has stage four brain cancer. He drew applause as he thanked Dr. Greenwalt for pressing the issue from the beginning and Brockovich's team for coming to town.
Ferry's daughter, who now lives in Colorado, grew up here and went to Spessard Holland Elementary School, DeLaura Middle School and Satellite High School, where tap water recently tested at trace levels of a toxic fluorinated compound.
"I just want to say I'm very sorry about your daughter," Brockovich said to Ferry. "And please know that in any way I can help and support ..."
Saturday's event echoed a similar town hall held in 1991. More than 450 residents from South Patrick Shores packed Sea Park Elementary at that meeting, where some sobbed in frustration. Their health concerns included Hodgkin's Disease, cancer rates and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a degenerative disease of nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord that causes muscles to atrophy, leading some to lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe.
Media coverage at the time cited a dozen cases of Hodgkin’s disease near Patrick from 1967 to 1983, between Pineda Causeway and Sea Park Boulevard. Concerns at the time centered around buried vehicles, batteries, airplane parts, fuels and other military wastes, as well as a radar station near the Pineda Causeway.
But a March 1992 report by the U.S. Department of Health's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that the Satellite Beach ZIP code area had fewer cases of cancer than would be expected, in comparison to statewide averages, except for breast and cervical cancers. The report also concluded that the available data did not show people were being exposed to contamination that would be expected to cause adverse health effects.
The military removed the radar near Pineda Causeway in the mid 1990s. For some who'd suspected the radar as a contributing cancer risk, concerns faded. Others still wondered and worried.
Then a spate of new cases in recent years, especially in young people, brought the issue back to the forefront.
Greenwalt, diagnosed with rare appendix cancer in her early 30s, began noticing fellow classmates getting diagnosed as well. Some, including her best friend from her days at Satellite High School, passed away.
Greenwalt has identified at least 54 cases of cancer diagnosed in the past eight years in people under age 40 who either went to Satellite High or grew up in the Satellite Beach area. Hundreds more have reported cases to state health officials. After consulting with Greenwalt, the Florida Department of Health decided to investigate eight cancer types at the ZIP code level to see if local cancer rates are significantly higher than what would be expected.
Fluorinated chemicals have been at the center of the current cancer mystery. Patrick Air Force Base used firefighting foams that contained the chemicals for decades, until phasing out their use in 2016. Samples of groundwater in recent years found high levels of the chemicals on the base, fueling fears that contaminated groundwater might have migrated off the base and polluted private wells in surrounding areas.
Scientific studies link the fluorinated compounds to testicular cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension. The association with other diseases is less certain, according to a recent report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The two chemicals of most concern, perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, were widely used in fire extinguishing foams, including at Patrick until two years ago.
Neither Melbourne's nor Cocoa's water systems found any of the chemicals during testing for the compounds between 2013 and 2015.
But Brevard Public Schools found one related, although much less harmful compound, perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA), at nine beachside schools on Melbourne's water system.
"I want to know where it's coming from," Bob Bowcock, a Brockovich associate, and water system consultant in California, said from the stage.
Earlier this month, Bowcock met with Satellite Beach, county, state and Patrick officials.
On Friday, Cocoa Beach released its latest round of groundwater, sewage and reuse water testing. The tests found more evidence that fluorinated chemicals are widespread in the city.
"I can't believe how unsafe this country's water is," said Marc Miano, of Satellite Beach. "It's a crime."
Brockovich said change must come from the ground up, with residents leading the charge.
"You can do this," Brockovich told the crowd. "Don't look for a hero to come save you. Be that hero."
Call the Florida Department of Health in Brevard County at 321-454-7101.