Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Erin Brockovich; New Olympic Threats

Aired February 4, 2014 - 18:00   ET




new Olympic threats. Two athletes are targeted, while U.S. officials say they have specific reasons to worry about security just three days before the Games begin.

Plus, Putin's pet project. The Russian president arrives in Sochi and poses for warm and fuzzy photos, despite serious concerns about Olympic terror and chaos.

And toxic testing. CNN reveals the results of our new independent analysis of the water in West Virginia as the feds investigate whether a major chemical spill into the water supply was a crime.

We talk about all of that with real-life Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist whose story was famously told in a Julia Roberts' movie. Erin is standing by to join us live.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In Russia right now, authorities are investigating a letter threatening two members of Austria's Olympic team roughly 72 hours before the official opening of the Winter Games. It is a first test of security in Sochi where thousands of troops and police are now on guard for the possibility of a terror attack. Top officials here in the United States are revealing more about the Olympic threats and just how serious they may be.

Our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is in Sochi with more on the threatening letter.

But first let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, State Department security intelligence personnel have been on the ground in Russia for the last several weeks.

But today as we count down to those final hours before the Games begin, yet another meeting at the White House, more statements from top officials making sure the U.S. is ready if there is an attack and Russia asks for help.


STARR (voice-over): As the world awaits the Sochi Olympics, the Obama administration is racing towards its own finish line.

MATTHEW OLSEN, NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM DIRECTOR: We are very focused on threats to the Olympic Games.

STARR: A full-court effort is on to do everything the White House can to be ready if there is an attack against U.S. athletes or Americans attending the Games. The U.S. counterterrorism chief does not dismiss the possibility.

OLSEN: There are a number of specific threats of varying degrees of credibility that we are tracking. And we are working very closely with the Russians and with other partners to monitor any threats we see and to disrupt those.

STARR: President Obama telling CNN's Jake Tapper Russia has shared its security plans.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we have a good sense of the security that they are putting in place to protect not only the athletes themselves, but also visitors there.

STARR: The U.S. insists it will only step in if Russia asks, but top counterterrorism officials met Tuesday at the White House to review plans by the State Department and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to be ready just in case.

By Wednesday, two U.S. Navy warships, the USS Mount Whitney and the USS Taylor, will be in the Black Sea on standby. C-17 aircraft with medical personnel on board will be ready to fly to Sochi within six hours of receiving orders to evacuate Americans if needed.

And Hagel has established around-the-clock communications with the Russian military for the duration of the Games. Private security firms are also in Sochi. TigerSwan, made up of former military personnel, is giving tracking devices to Olympic clients. It has worked before to get people out of danger.

JAMES REESE, TIGERSWAN: Our clients have pressed the panic button as we are getting our emergency assistance teams into position. The police are there and we go to the police and we let them know that we have personnel inside that police security ring.


STARR: And the intelligence community and U.S. officials will tell you that one of their major worries now is an attack outside of the Olympic venues in Sochi or the immediate surrounding areas.

The venues are said to be heavily protected, but outside, that may be something that nobody can protect against -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, arrived in the Olympic city today shortly before news broke of the letter threatening two athletes.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is in Sochi -- Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are barely three days before the opening ceremony here and still the background noise is about security, no matter how relaxed, environmentally friendly and at ease Vladimir Putin tried to look when he arrived for the Games earlier on today.


WALSH (voice-over): Despite new serious threats to athletes, including two Austrians, the Kremlin's image was soft and furry Tuesday, Vladimir Putin and a snow leopard, the mascot of the world's most expensive Games, alongside their creator unafraid of one of nature's most savage.


But, still, the safety threats wouldn't stop. This time, two Austrian athletes threatened by letter in German if they come here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have two security people here. And if the threat is confirmed, is actual, we will give additional security to the athletes.

WALSH: Putin always the strong man at home in the wild, and at least kept his shirt on today, has pledged to keep everyone safe here, and that this will be a spectacle indeed. You would have to hope the Games would be for $51 billion.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The Olympic Games in Sochi will be a clearly grandiose project.

WALSH: Last minute holes in the glossy veneer still, though, despite the price tag both for Russian taxpayers and tourists here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am happy to inform you that all media hotels are open.

WALSH: But open isn't ready. And, yes, they did apologize for any inconvenience.

With three days to go, the torch arrives in Sochi Wednesday, but was in Krasnodar Tuesday, where the Soviet glory Putin seeks to restore to Russia was there in this hero of labor, Dr. Ludmila Besparleva's (ph) pledge that the Olympics mean the harvest here would break all records.

Now the boss is in town, helicopters and fireworks practices in the Olympic night, power and glory, but not a lot of calm or joy, perhaps just the way Putin wants it. (END VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH: Now, Wolf, those helicopters that we heard during the afternoon, they don't exactly put you at ease. But, really, in truth, the sheer volume of resources of not just Russia, the United States and we learned today Austria as well have pulled in resources to the venue behind him to try to secure safety will probably keep most of the athletes and tourists safe.

Of course, we can't say the same for the rest of Southern Russia, but now I think the Kremlin will be hoping the world's eyes switch towards the ceremony here, the coming sporting events themselves, and state TV is suggesting that maybe half the world's population will, in fact, watch the opening ceremony on Friday evening -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. Nick Paton Walsh in Sochi, let's hope for the best.

Still ahead, we are following up on an environmental disaster that affected 300,000 people. Stand by for the results of our new tests of tap water in West Virginia. Is it toxic weeks after a chemical spill?

The consumer advocate Erin Brockovich is standing by. You know her from the movie that old her story. She has also been investigating the possible health hazards in West Virginia. Erin will join us live. That's coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: CNN has learned that a criminal investigation has now been launched into a major plant spill and toxic water disaster in West Virginia. And 300,000 people were affected. And many of them are still worried about their health and/or safety.

We have conducted our own new and independent test of the water supply. We now have the results.

Consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich is standing by to talk about the situation in West Virginia. She was just there, separate investigation. Several are still under way.

But, first, let's go to Drew Griffin of CNN Investigations, who is joining us now with the newest information.

What are you learning, Drew?


A grand jury, a federal grand jury has been seated and begun to subpoena people and to look into possible criminal charges in this spill and in the aftermath. We learned that today. The other thing is that, in our own tests, our own water tests from samples we took just yesterday, CNN can confirm at least in trace amounts that this chemical MCHM is still flowing through the homes in West Virginia. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Sources say the federal investigation will focus on the leak of the coal cleaning chemical from the tank of the shores of the Elk River, how it ended up in this river and how it got into the water supply.

CNN commissioned an environmental testing company called TestAmerica to gauge the level of harmful chemicals in both the river and in the homes of people who gave us permission to test water coming right out of their kitchen taps. The tests show trace amounts of the chemical MCHM still remain in all the water samples, well within the safety levels set by the CDC, but the two women whose water was tested both say they aren't using tap water and may never again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There is just not a lot of information out there about this. We don't know what the long-term effects are going to be. Yes, it may not kill us, but I'm concerned about my kids 20 years from now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are concerned about what is in it. We have heard about byproducts of the original chemical. We still smell it occasionally.

GRIFFIN: Despite assurances that the tap water in tens of thousands of homes is fine to drink, last night, an overflow crowd packed the ornate West Virginia House of Delegates' chambers, all of them with the same worries. Is the water really safe? Do the people testing the water really know? And why are 300,000 people afraid they are living in what one person called chemical valley?

The CEO of the West Virginia American Water Company also appeared in public for the first time since a few days after the spill.


Jeff McIntyre told a House committee the testing shows the levels of harmful chemicals in the Elk River were below dangerous levels and that his company was putting -- quote -- "good quality water" into people's homes and businesses.

JEFF MCINTYRE, CEO, WEST VIRGINIA AMERICAN WATER: I'm using it, my wife is using it. My employees are using it. Many people I have talked to are in fact using it.

GRIFFIN: Yet, only a few miles away, the head of the county health department here said only a handful of people are actually drinking the tap water. In two surveys conducted by his office, Dr. Rahul Gupta said barely 1 percent of those who responded said they were using tap water, everyone else still relying on bottled water. That includes his own family.

DR. RAHUL GUPTA, KANAWHA-CHARLESTON HEALTH DEPARTMENT: I have drank the water, and my wife who is also a physician has told me I better not be drinking the water. GRIFFIN: This chemical was never meant to be ingested. So, its impact on humans isn't known. And it may take months and even years before people in Charleston think it is safe to drink the water again.


GRIFFIN: Wolf, we did contact the West Virginia American Water Company about our findings just this afternoon. A spokesperson told us that these levels are so low, they have no impact and insist, as the CEO did last night, that the water is safe to drink -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Drew Griffin, thanks very much.

Let's bring in the consumer advocate, the environmental activist Erin Brockovich. Erin, thanks very much for joining us. I know you have just been there. You were on the ground in West Virginia. What is your bottom line?

ERIN BROCKOVICH, CONSUMER ADVOCATE & ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST: Well, my bottom line is what the people are reporting and how they feel. I mean, they are in a situation where they are very concerned, and they're in a situation where they absolutely do not trust what they are being told. Most of the restaurants where we were at advertise, we're using bottled water. Please, we are not using the tap. Come in.

The residents are still complaining that off and on they smell things. They are still complaining that when they use the water, they are noticing burns on their hands, rashes on their scalps, sore throat, headache. Yet they are continually told it is safe to drink the water. So, they are feeling a great deal of frustration, and many of them are going to err on the side of caution, and they're just simply not using their water at this time.

BLITZER: You saw our report that a criminal investigation is now underway. Is that justified? What do you think -- should there be this kind of investigation?

BROCKOVICH: Oh, I absolutely think that there absolutely should be. There has got to come a time where we wake up and start holding whoever did this accountable for what has happened. 300,000 people were rendered no water. We don't know the future outcome of them or their health. It is a trespass. You are out on the street, and you assault somebody, what happens? You get filed criminal charges, you go to jail. And I think it is time, I think it is way past time that we step up to the plate, hold people accountable and those criminal charges absolutely should be looked at.

BLITZER: Do you trust the Centers for Disease Control, the CDC, which is suggesting that based on their tests over the years, some going back 20 years on apes if you will, that the water is safe in West Virginia?

BROCKOVICH: You know, for me, I think that is risky business. And I say that from my experience of being out there for 20, 22 years involved in different chemicals, hexavalent chromium being one of them, and finding out way too late oh, oops, we were wrong. That level was too high. And the damage is already been done.

I really think that CDC and these agencies need to err on the side of caution and protect the health and welfare of people first. When you don't know that one PPM will or won't hurt you, what trace amount can or can't harm a child and wait until you find out it is too late.

BLITZER: I want to correct: the CDC tests were on rats, not on apes. So, clearly that is not good enough for you right now, and not good enough for a lot of folks who have to deal with this on a very day-to- day personal basis.

Is it just drinking the water? What about taking a shower or what about boiling the water and using the water after it's been boiled?

BROCKOVICH: That's something that is very concerning to us. And we have clearly shared with people, especially a hot shower, it gets steamy. The inhalation factor -- we've encouraged them to please take very short showers. If they are washing in hot water, to keep the house open and well ventilated. And clearly continue to use caution about whether they drink it or not. And most people are not.

But inhalation is always a factor. And we have expressed our concern and share that with most of the folks.

BLITZER: So, you wouldn't even use the water to do your laundry in a washing machine?

BROCKOVICH: Well, you know, a lot of people are reporting that their clothes are falling apart. They are stained. They have an oily substance on them that when they use the washing machine and it's hot water that they can smell it in the house. So, a common precaution for them would be if you smell it and you are observing that, wash in cold water, take quick showers.


I have had many reports of people who aren't taking showers at all, and they are saying we are going on four weeks of this and they still report their water looks funny, there's oily substances. For them, it is like I don't care what the trace amount is. It should be zero. Zero tolerance; we do not have the assurance yet that our water is safe. And they are still sending their children to school with bottled water and they're taking every precaution. And I would do the same.

BLITZER: How do we fix this to make sure this never happens again?

BROCKOVICH: There is a lot that we have to do. I mean, it is 2014 and the United States of America, and we're not prepared for a situation like this. I think there has to be a overhaul and greater oversight.

Listen, regulations are already on the book. You can bank they're probably going to put more on the book. But if we don't start enforcing these regulations, our conversation is pointless and this will continue to happen. So we have to have people on the ground that go out and oversee these tank farms above ground, below ground. And if we are going to set new regulations, we need to be prepared to enforce them so this type of problem does not continue to happen.

Because I think we have learned here that it takes very little water to damage a whole lot of people and that we'll have another crisis on our hands. So we have to have better oversight, and we got new regulations on the books. We need to be prepared to follow through with that and enforce what we've just put into place, or otherwise it is useless.

BLITZER: Erin Brockovich, thanks very much for joining us.

BROCKOVICH: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we have some chilling new details of Philip Seymour Hoffman's final days. Were clues about his state of mind missed?



BLITZER: Authorities are piecing together the final hours of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman before his apparent drug overdose.

Brian Todd is here and he's got the latest -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the fallout from Philip Seymour Hoffman's death has reached the Senate floor. Today, Majority Leader Harry Reid said heroin use is a scourge in the United States. This came as we learned more details about Hoffman's movements just before his death.


TODD (voice-over): January 18, about two weeks before his death, Philip Seymour Hoffman has a chance encounter at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Hoffman makes small talk with magazine writer John Arundel at a nightclub.

JOHN ARUNDEL, MAGAZINE WRITER: I said, what do you do. And at that point, he took off his hat and he said, I'm a heroin addict.

TODD (on camera): He said that to you just right off the bat?

ARUNDEL: Right off the bat.

TODD: Was he joking?

ARUNDEL: Didn't look like he was. He seemed like he was having one of those coming-to-God moments, where it just struck him as, this is a revelatory moment.

TODD (voice-over): Hoffman said he had just gotten out of rehab. Fast-forward two weeks later. Hoffman was seen at this coffee shop in Manhattan. His personal assistant spoke to him on the phone that afternoon. Nothing seemed wrong. But a couple of hours later, Paul Pabst, producer of the syndicated "Dan Patrick" radio show, says he and his sister spotted Hoffman walking in Manhattan.

On the show, Pabst told his story and said his sister said hello to Hoffman.

PAUL PABST, RADIO PRODUCER: My sister looked at me and goes, wow, he didn't look good. He looked out of it.

TODD: Later, at a supermarket near his home, Hoffman withdrew $1,200 from this ATM in six different transactions between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., according to law enforcement officials. A witness told investigators he saw Hoffman at the supermarket ATM while talking to two men wearing messenger bags.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're probably going to look at the CCTV to see if there was anybody in the background, if those transactions were made simply by Hoffman, by somebody else who had access to his debit card, if somebody was in the background, were they aiding Hoffman in a transaction, were they people who were supplying drugs, delivering drugs?


TODD: We are told investigators have interviewed Hoffman's personal assistant. Two law enforcement officials say neither the assistant nor David Katz, the friend who found Hoffman dead in his apartment, have been able to provide information about his alleged drug use -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a sad story, indeed. Brian Todd, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. CROSSFIRE starts right now.