DRINKING WATER:

Another pollution battle looms in Erin Brockovich's town

Roberta Walker knows a thing or two about water contamination in Hinkley, Calif.

It was Walker, after all, who handed a box full of research on hexavalent chromium in the city's water to a young legal clerk named Erin Brockovich more than 15 years ago.

Walker and Brockovich's successful work tracing the contaminant to a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) facility led to a $333-million-dollar, class-action settlement in 1996 -- one of the largest of all time -- and inspired the 2000 blockbuster movie bearing Brockovich's name.

That work also explains why Walker was stunned when another Hinkley resident handed her a similar box last December. Despite the settlement, the documents showed PG&E had done little to contain the plume of hexavalent chromium, which U.S. EPA deemed a likely carcinogen in a draft assessment last year.

Walker was even more surprised when she looked at where the plume had been detected. Despite moving 7 miles northeast after the settlement, the plume was only a mile from her new home. Just as before, PG&E began making offers to buy her house. And just as before, PG&E started delivering bottled water every week.

"It's like deja vu all over again," Walker said.

And Walker is fighting back, again. She and other Hinkley residents are locked in what appears to be a three-way battle with PG&E and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, a chronically underfunded state agency that evaluates and enforces PG&E's cleanup plans.

Tensions between the parties appear to be escalating. Hinkley residents say PG&E is not cleaning up the plume quickly enough and that the water board has been far too lenient with the utility. Walker is also preparing to file another class-action lawsuit. PG&E, which has endured a string of public relations catastrophes in the past year, charges that some of the residents' and water board's recent demands -- such as delivering clean water for all residents' needs -- are unnecessary.

In an interview, Brockovich called the situation "sad, disappointing, shameful, scary and frustrating." PG&E, she said, had "duped" the state.

"I'm disgusted," she said.

Brockovich also pointed out that the situation in Hinkley raises broader questions about contamination and cleanup. Simply put, if a multimillion-dollar settlement and an Academy Award-winning film aren't enough to spur an effective response, what is?

"This is a huge problem, one that with the economy in such a state that it's in, no one is paying any attention to it," she said. "Somehow, some way, we better find some new ways to do business and oversight."

Carmela Gonzalez, who handed Walker the box of documents last December, first thought something was wrong when her horses stopped drinking the water at her Hinkley property. Gonzalez was familiar with the 1996 settlement, though she was not a part of it.

She started digging for more information at the water board and conducted testing of her and her three neighbors' water. The results, she said, surprised her: The plume had migrated significantly.

Gonzalez took the tests to the water board, and, she said, no one listened to her. She then contacted Walker, hoping she and Brockovich could drum up public support.

"I feel it should be criminal," Gonzalez said.

Lisa Dernbach, who now oversees the PG&E cleanup for the Lahontan water board, said the electric utility was executing a remediation plan approved by her agency following the 2000 movie. During that interim action, she said, the utility appeared to contain the plume to 2 miles.

In 2008, however, Dernbach said PG&E scaled back its cleanup, allowing the underground plume to spread underground, violating the board's cleanup order. The plume is now more than 3 miles long.

Dernbach, according to both Gonzalez and Brockovich, has been much more aggressive with PG&E than her predecessor. When the utility submitted its final cleanup proposal last September, Dernbach said it wasn't good enough. Since then, they have been locked in a back and forth. The board has set a Sept. 15 deadline for a new plan.

"We've asked for more details on their cleanup proposals and specifically how they are going to be able to stop to the plume from migrating each winter as it has since 1991," Dernbach said.

The strength of Dernbach's negotiating position was recently bolstered when California issued the nation's first drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium in July. The California EPA set a public health goal of 0.02 parts per billion (Greenwire, July 28).

Though the enforceable standard won't be finalized for several years, Dernbach said her agency will use the same scientific studies to push PG&E for a more thorough cleanup.

"We can still reference those scientific studies," Dernbach said. "That has really changed the game for us. They'll have to meet that new standard."

PG&E 'absolutely committed' to cleanup -- spokesman

PG&E used hexavalent chromium in cooling towers at its Hinkley compressor from 1952 to 1966. The chemical, which fights corrosion in industrial settings, was then discharged into unlined ponds at the site. From the ponds, the chemical spread into groundwater sources in the area.

Jeff Smith, a spokesman for PG&E, acknowledged the company's fault for the contamination and said the company is "absolutely committed" to cleaning up the plume. He added that the company regrets that the relationship with Hinkley residents has become strained.

"With respect to reaching out to the community, there is certainly more that we could have been doing and that's one of the reasons we've been taking these steps in the past few months," Smith said.

Those steps include installing additional monitoring wells to get a better understanding of where the plume is. PG&E has also been participating in the recently created Community Advisory Committee, a panel of PG&E and Hinkley residents, and has upped its property purchase program for residents looking to leave the area because of the contamination.

However, Smith was reluctant to say that the plume has migrated, as Dernbach and Walker charge. He said new testing has revealed more information about the plume.

"What's caused the change in the mapping is we've installed additional wells," he said, while acknowledging that irrigation pumping could have caused some minor movement.

Smith also emphasized cleanup work that PG&E has already done, including planting crops to help convert hexavalent chromium into chromium-3 -- which carries a health benefit. Additionally, the utility is injecting an ethanol-based solution into the ground that also effectively changes the contaminant to chromium-3. The final cleanup proposal will emphasize more of those two tactics.

"The plume is well under way to being remediated," Smith said.

The timing for a flare-up in Hinkley is bad for PG&E. The company is still reeling from the explosion of its natural gas pipeline that killed eight people in San Bruno, Calif., last September. The company also invested $46 million in a failed ballot measure last year that aimed to complicate local governments' efforts to launch their own utilities.

All of that led the company to hire Anthony Earley of Michigan's DTE Energy to be its new CEO, starting next month. It is the first time PG&E has hired an outsider to lead the company.

'Very ugly, very disappointing, very depressing'

For Elaine Kearney, the negotiations and cleanup are almost beside the point.

Kearney, 64, began visiting Hinkley in the late 1970s when her sister bought 10 acres in the area. Her family drove to the desert town every weekend and brought bottled water home with them because she "thought it was good fresh water."

In the mid-1980s, Kearney bought a neighboring property. Her family finished a 3,000-square-foot house there in 1995.

Fifteen years later, most of her family is very ill. One of her daughters has advanced cancer. Her other daughter has had five miscarriages, ovarian cysts and an autistic child. She also has a dog that is covered in tumors.

Kearney now suffers from heart disease and has been in and out of the hospital from many strokes. The strokes have become so routine, she said, that she often doesn't even go into the hospital anymore.

"I'm not the same person I was," she said.

She knows that it is difficult to assign blame for her family's many health problems. But she can't help but return to the Hinkley water.

And her house, Kearney said, is "absolutely worthless."

"We can't sell it," she said. "We can't walk away or we'll lose a chance at a settlement." She added that she has seen houses less than a mile away being bulldozed after PG&E bought them.

Frustrated, Kearney criticized both the water board for being too lenient and PG&E because "they never fixed anything."

"Hello, we're sick, our children are sick, our grandchildren are sick," Kearney said. "It's very ugly, very disappointing, very depressing."

To Brockovich, Kearney's situation shows why more must be done.

"I feel really bad. I also thought that after the lawsuit, and certainly after the movie, they'd clear this up," she said. "But they didn't. They did the same thing right under our noses."

"This didn't happen yesterday," she added. "This has been going on and covered up again for years."

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