Ten years after activist Erin Brockovich swept through this high-desert town and helped force Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement for allegedly polluting the town's groundwater, residents say they're facing another serious health threat.
Sewage composting company Nursery Products wants to set up business eight miles outside of town, stirring up anxiety among families still coping with cancer and other serious illnesses they blame on a leaky PG&E; natural gas pumping station.
"We're tired of being lab rats," said Mark Orr, 43, who takes a fistful of prescription drugs every morning because his thyroid gland had to be removed when he was 19. "My mother has cancer. My dad didn't make it. [Nursery Products] says we 'shouldn't' be affected by their operations, but 'shouldn't' just doesn't work for me."
The Apple Valley-based company wants to compost sludge -- the cake-like goop left over after raw sewage is treated at a sanitation plant -- on 80 acres of Mojave desert outside Hinkley. Under the current plan, San Bernardino and Riverside counties could unload 400,000 tons of sludge per year.
But residents of Hinkley and nearby Barstow, which lie downwind of the proposed facility, oppose the project, saying it will be too close. They believe strong desert winds will whip noxious odors and bacteria-laden dust into the air, making people sick.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in the next few weeks is expected to consider the proposal, which was approved by the county's planning commission last month.
Board Chairman Bill Postmus, whose district includes Hinkley, said he was aware of desert residents' concerns and assured them that Hinkley wasn't being singled out. "We're not targeting anybody," Postmus said. "In this great country of ours, people get to buy property wherever they want and apply for a project."
Postmus, who has received $16,000 in campaign contributions from the composting company since 2003, said he had not decided how he will vote.
Nursery Products representatives say there is no evidence that sludge composting causes health problems.
"If there's any scientific evidence that shows there's a public health risk that would affect a community eight miles away, this project wouldn't happen," said Brian Lochrie, a spokesman for Nursery Products. "The fact of the matter is, there is no evidence."
In 2002, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that whether exposure to sludge caused adverse health effects was uncertain. As a result, half a dozen federally commissioned studies are now underway.
Ellen Harrison, director of Cornell University's Waste Management Institute in New York, said studies have shown that compost facility workers were at greater risk of developing respiratory and skin diseases. "The literature seems to indicate that there are certainly some things that can get airborne, and some of those things can represent a health hazard," Harrison said. "But how far they go is really not well known."
Still, Nursery Products has been run out of town before because of health concerns.
Adelanto sued the company in 2005 to close its facility there, claiming that the company lied about the noxious odors the facility would produce. Nursery Products settled the suit and agreed to close the facility.
The California Department of Health Services investigated the complaints in Adelanto. Although there wasn't enough data to determine if residents' health problems were caused by composting, the report concluded that some of the symptoms were "consistent with biosolid-related exposures documented in the scientific literature."
Schoolchildren at Bradach Elementary School, two miles from the Adelanto facility, suffered vomiting and increases in bloody noses and respiratory infections, school officials said.
A "black mass of thousands of flies" covered the school's outer doors and windows, according to then-principal Melva Davis. "On some days, the stench was so foul that students playing outside complained of stomachaches and headaches, and experienced vomiting," Davis said in a 2005 court declaration.
Employees at a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power switching station 200 yards from the composting facility also complained of health problems, and Los Angeles eventually filed suit.
DWP workers' eyes itched and their noses ran on account of the dust and odors, and employees had to wear beekeeping headgear to keep flies away from their mouths, eyes and ears while they worked on high- voltage equipment, said DWP attorney S. David Hotchkiss.
After Adelanto, the company tried to relocate to nearby Newberry Springs, where residents made such a fuss that the company withdrew its proposal.
Hinkley's favored savior, Brockovich -- made famous in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts -- has not gotten involved in the town's new battle.
Brockovich's research helped cement two settlements from PG&E; totaling $628 million for residents of Hinkley, Kettleman Hills and other towns that blamed cancers and other diseases on contaminated water leaking from the gas pumping station.
"The whole community didn't do anything for months because they thought she was going to ride in on her white horse," said Hinkley resident Norman Diaz, who is leading the charge against Nursery Products. "But I talked to her office and got a response saying she wasn't interested. She's fighting other battles."
Brockovich said last week that she hadn't realized the project was so far along. "This is a community that is near and dear to my heart; I'm with them on their concerns," she said. "I don't know that I'd want it either."
Brockovich said she planned to look into the issue and encouraged residents to keep fighting.
The windblown town of 1,900 straddles a two-lane truck highway just west of Barstow. There are some alfalfa fields and a few small dairies, but no downtown -- just a handful of mostly dirt roads lined with modest houses. On some days, the wind carries the scent of dairies.
Trying to gain momentum without the firepower of someone like Brockovich has been difficult.
In October, more than 300 people packed an elementary school cafeteria for an informational meeting about the project with county planning officials. But the real protest, Diaz said, has to happen at Board of Supervisors meetings in San Bernardino, a two-hour drive south.
Floyd Burns, 72, attended the October meeting to learn about Nursery Products' proposal, but he said he probably won't be able to get too involved in the fight. He's too busy driving his wife, Jean, to Victorville for chemotherapy five days a week. Jean, 67, survived breast cancer but now suffers from lymphoma that doctors told her was probably caused by chromium poisoning. She was part of a second lawsuit against PG&E.;
"Right now, we're just trying to keep her alive," Burns said. "That's my main goal."
Residents say they wouldn't mind the composting facility so much if Nursery Products would build a dome around it to filter noxious fumes out of the air. Nursery Products officials said that is too expensive.
Nearby, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates portions of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, requires composting plants to be enclosed. But Hinkley falls within the jurisdiction of the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District, which has less stringent regulations. A district spokeswoman said the district planned to study the issue in 2008.
In the meantime, people in Hinkley can't believe that Nursery Products picked their town, of all places, to set up business. The company says it selected the area because of its remote location.
"This isn't Beverly Hills," Burns said. "They probably took a look around and thought 'easy targets.' "