A plume of chromium-tainted groundwater is once again bearing down on residents of Hinkley, Calif., where more than a decade ago an underdog battle with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spawned a multimillion-dollar settlement and the Oscar-winning film "Erin Brockovich."
FOR THE RECORD:
Water contamination: An article in the Nov. 15 Section A about groundwater contamination in Hinkley in San Bernardino County referred to the substance involved, hexavalent chromium, as a heavy-metal isotope. Hexavalent chromium is not an isotope of chromium but a form of the element whose atoms are missing six electrons. It is found in a number of chemical compounds used for industrial purposes. —
The border of the plume has shifted 1,800 feet beyond a containment boundary set by PG&E in 2008, spreading higher levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing heavy metal isotope linked to stomach cancers and other health hazards, according to state water officials. The isotope also has been discovered in a lower aquifer that, until recently, PG&E believed was protected from contaminated groundwater above it by a thick layer of clay, the officials added.
In 1997, PG&E paid 660 Hinkley residents $333 million to settle lawsuits alleging injuries including intestinal tumors and breast cancer from chromium-laced waste water that had seeped from the utility's disposal ponds between 1951 and 1966, winding its way into the community's drinking wells.
PG&E's handling and reporting of the migrating plume is under investigation by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state regulatory agency responsible for protecting the area's water.
"We definitely know there are violations, and that what PG&E is doing right now to contain the plume is not enough," said Lauri Kemper, assistant executive officer for the water board. "We have the authority to impose fines of up to $5,000 per day for each day the plume exists outside of the boundary set in 2008."
Kemper said the water board has retained a state water attorney to help prepare a legal case against the utility, a process that could take six months.
Utility officials acknowledge that parts of the plume have spread but say it is being controlled by ongoing cleanup efforts. They deny that its spread has violated any legal agreements and said more scientific research is needed to determine whether spikes in concentrations of hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, detected in many local wells could be linked to the plume or to natural occurrences.
"These concentrations remain within the realms of naturally occurring background concentrations," said Robert C. Doss, PG&E principal engineer. "There is no way to determine whether our plume is having an impact or not."
A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for May 2011.
Doss said he understands that the situation "represents a worry about the health of Hinkley families and their investments." But he also suggested that critics have exaggerated the health hazards posed by contamination in the plume's outer edges and have mistakenly interpreted its constantly changing shape as "overall growth."
The amoeba-like plume is about 2 1/2 miles long and a mile wide, and advancing west and northwest at a rate of about a foot a day, officials said.
"In some places the plume grows and then shrinks, in others it might sprout a lobe as it responds to hydrological pressures," Doss said.
As for PG&E's remediation efforts in Hinkley, Doss said, "It's fair to say what we are doing now needs to be supplemented to bring it up to a final cleanup. But we take exception to any assertions that the measures we've taken have not had a positive effect on the problem."
Many property owners in this dusty agricultural town about five miles west of Barstow in San Bernardino County are frustrated with PG&E's efforts to contain the plume and the water board's apparent hesitation to charge the utility with civil violations.
"Obviously, the community would be happy to see us file civil liability complaints against the company," Kemper said. "We are considering that internally. But we haven't yet because we are busy every day trying to stay on top of the situation to ensure they are continuing to clean up this plume."
"They've had 23 years to fix this problem," said Carmela Gonzalez, 44, a lifelong resident who was not part of the original Hinkley lawsuit. "Instead, they've allowed the contamination plume to grow and put fear in the hearts of Hinkley residents that they are still not safe and that their property is worthless."
Added Gonzalez: "People around here no longer trust the water board to do right by Hinkley. PG&E should be helping residents get out of here if they want to by giving them reasonable compensation for their losses."
Some of the hundreds of plaintiffs in the earlier case are exploring their options, given that they signed agreements barring them from discussing details of their settlements. Some residents, who were not involved in that case, talk of launching another class-action lawsuit.
Lillie Stone and her husband, Jim, who is disabled, live on fixed incomes and want PG&E to buy their property at a reasonable price, or pay to help them relocate. Neither received any settlement money from the original Hinkley case.
"There is no wholesale plan to buy out the people living in Hinkley," Doss said. "If, however, a property sits on top of our plume, we will certainly entertain responsible and good-faith offers to buy those homes."
The cozy two-story house the Stones built in 1987 sits a few miles north of where the utility for years collected chromium-tainted water used as an anti-corrosive in a pumping plant's cooling towers. Unaware of the leaking contamination, residents drank tap water, bathed in it and watched their children splash in chromium-laced swimming pools on hot summer days.
Gazing out a kitchen window at outdoor bird baths filled with water from the family well, Lillie Stone, 66, shook her head in dismay and said, "It's happening again, and it's scaring the daylights out of us."
"Tests showed that levels of hexavalent chromium in our well water have risen to 2.9 parts per billion, or more than 700% over the past three years," Stone said. "But a PG&E representative sat right here at my table and said he wouldn't even consider buying us out until we reach 4 parts per billion. I'm so heartbroken and anxious about the future that I've stopped tending to my garden and citrus orchard."
"We just want to get the heck out of Hinkley," she added. "But if PG&E doesn't buy us out…"
"We'll stay and suffer even more than we're suffering now," her husband interjected.
Rob Gerner, 54, who lives a mile west of the Stones, is still waiting for a response to what he described as "a demand letter" his attorney delivered to PG&E more than three weeks ago. "Tests of water samples from my wells in July came up with 3.8 parts per billion of chromium 6, which is above normal background levels," he said. "We've put a lot of hard work and money into this house over the past 21 years. Now, I'm not sure it would ever sell. We want to be made whole."
PG&E continues to pump water from the edges of the plume and apply it to alfalfa fields with a subterranean drip system, to avoid having chromium 6 surface residues kicked up by desert winds. PG&E officials said the chromium 6 is not absorbed by the alfalfa, which is used as cattle feed.
In addition, 115,200 gallons of fresh water is injected daily along the western boundary of the plume to block contaminants from migrating closer to Hinkley Elementary School's wells, about 2,100 feet away.
The utility also injects ethanol into the center of the plume, where concentrations of chromium 6 exceed levels of 50 parts per billion, in an effort to spur the growth of bacteria that can transform the toxic substance into harmless compounds.
There is no drinking water standard for chromium 6 in the United States. In California, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has proposed setting a public health goal of 0.06 parts per billion. About 18% of the public drinking water sources in California have chromium 6 levels above 1 part per billion.
On Friday, PG&E officials notified several homeowners along Summerset Avenue in Hinkley that elevated levels of chromium 6 made them eligible for free bottled water.
The plume has been swelling in the general direction of a hillside home owned by Roberta Walker. She was a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that gave birth to the 2000 film and Oscar for actress Julia Roberts, who played Brockovich, the legal researcher and mother of three who developed the case.
Walkers' suspicions about PG&E began in 1987 when it suddenly began supplying her and her neighbors with bottled water. "They said our well water didn't quite meet standards for drinking," she recalled. Five years later, she said, "They said they wanted to buy our property. I gave them an offer they could not possibly honor — $250,000. They agreed. That's when I realized something was very wrong."
Her legal challenge was taken up by Brockovich. Together, they uncovered the cause of the pollution in Hinkley's groundwater and went on to mount the class-action case.
Walker said she bought her current home with her portion of the lawsuit settlement — slightly less than $1 million — believing that "I was several miles away from the contamination and out of harm's way. At our new home, the well water tested pure, good, clear and clean."
"Now, there is a poisonous plume moving towards me, like a plague," Walker said. "I'm talking to attorneys about what it will take to force PG&E to buy us out. We can't wait on this. I want out. The water agency says it will do something about this stuff but, hey, I've heard that before. Actions speak louder than words."
Walker also is conferring with Brockovich. "Erin told me not to worry," Walker said. "She said she'll take care of me."
In a telephone interview, Brockovich said, "Once again, this is a community of sitting ducks. I'll be out there soon to help encourage people to get the word out, to start knocking on doors and examining water and soil test results. Then we'll decide how to proceed."
Brockovich said further litigation shouldn't be necessary, adding, "PG&E should step up to the plate, take responsibility and act on it. But I'm not holding my breath."