Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the nation's largest investor-owned utility, agreed Tuesday to pay $333 million to residents of the tiny desert community of Hinkley, Calif., who blamed cancers and other diseases on contaminated water leaking from a gas pumping station.
PG&E; deputy general counsel Robert Bordon said the settlement is the largest one the San Francisco-based utility has ever agreed to in response to an environmental complaint.
"We have not had anything before that we would consider a significant environmental lawsuit," Bordon said.
Thomas Girardi, the Los Angeles lawyer representing the 650 plaintiffs in the case, hailed the settlement "as a great moment in the history of wrongs being righted."
Girardi said PG&E;'s decision to settle displayed "conscience and integrity in wanting to respond to a problem that PG&E; caused."
PG&E; decided to settle after two years of binding arbitration led to awards of $121 million to 39 plaintiffs. Under the terms of the arbitration, the company could have been required to pay up to $400 million.
The case dates to 1951 when spent chromium, used in a gas cooling process, leached out of unlined waste water settling ponds and made its way into the ground water over a 15-year period.
Residents and visitors to the town just west of Barstow said they suffered from a variety of serious illnesses, including lung, breast, stomach, kidney and prostate cancer and other disorders as a result of drinking well water contaminated by the chromium.
According to Girardi, the drinking water contained 140 times the amount of chromium allowed under state and federal standards.
Bordon said PG&E; stopped using chromium at the gas pumping station in 1966. The company bought about a dozen houses near the contaminated ground water in the early 1980s and began treating the ground water to remove the chromium about 10 years ago, he said. While the company acknowledged that the chromium had leaked into the ground water, it disputed charges that the contamination caused people to get sick, the utility's lawyer said.
Bordon argued that scientific research has linked chromium to just two types of cancers--lung and sinus--and that while there were six cases of lung cancer in Hinkley, "at least four of the victims were longtime smokers."
Moreover, he said, the incidence of all cancers in Hinkley since the early 1950s was no greater than it was for the general population.
Bordon said the panel of retired judges who awarded the $121 million in the cases of the first 39 plaintiffs were persuaded by "junk science."
Plaintiff attorney Girardi said his clients based their case, in part, on expert testimony that chromium can harm every organ of the body.
Girardi also said a PG&E; memorandum indicated that company officials knew that "the water was being poisoned" as early as 1962 yet did nothing about the problem for several years.
PG&E; faces another lawsuit concerning chromium exposure by employees and former employees of another gas pumping station in Kettleman City in Kern County.