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California and the West : THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

New Pollution Suit Names PG&E

Residents who were not part of 'Erin Brockovich' settlement are seeking damages, but the firm's possible bankruptcy could stall legal action.

February 07, 2001|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HINKLEY, Calif. — They were the glory days, or the closest this tumbleweed town ever got. The adults gathered on porches, drinking iced tea and bragging about their kids, and the children frolicked in alfalfa fields, then ran home to houses that were never locked.

But the quarter-century that followed has brought a sober reality in this High Desert community. Residents allege that water from Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s nearby plant that was sprayed on farmland or used to fill swimming pools was contaminated with chromium 6, a suspected carcinogen.

Armed with new legal strategies, 109 residents who were not part of the $333-million settlement of "Erin Brockovich" fame are pursuing a new lawsuit against the utility. But the new plaintiffs, so far from the rolling blackouts in San Francisco or the literal power brokers in Sacramento, fear they may become the latest victims of California's energy crisis even if they win their case. That's because PG&E says it is out of money, out of credit and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Gloria Darling, a member of the Barstow City Council, moved to Hinkley in 1970. A plaintiff in the new case, she alleges that the contamination is responsible for her lupus, a large cyst on her kidney and other health problems. Her children, now 30 and 31, have skin and respiratory problems, she said.

"We thought it was Shangri-La, and we were always really grateful about the way PG&E was contributing to our community," Darling said. "Now, people say: 'What are you going to do? Are we going to get our money?' "

PG&E officials say that the new allegations are unfounded--and very different from the claims that led to the previous settlement. The utility officials say that residents who lived outside a plume of contamination were not exposed to chromium 6, and they deny charges that the utility filled a community swimming pool with water drawn from contaminated wells.

PG&E has lost more than $5 billion in the last year buying expensive wholesale electricity at prices that, because of the 1996 deregulation law, it could not pass on to customers. Many analysts expect the San Francisco-based utility to run out of money by March.

The company's stocks have inched up more recently as progress has been made in the energy crisis, and the threat of bankruptcy is less than it was a few weeks ago. But it is still very real.

PG&E spokesman Jon Tremayne would not discuss the prospects of bankruptcy specifically, but said that the utility is "dedicated to ensuring that we remain in a financial position to deliver gas and electricity to our customers."

"We've got our team here focused on finding solutions," he said.

Asked whether PG&E's financial woes could dampen the prospects of additional legal settlements in Hinkley, Tremayne said the question was akin to "looking into a crystal ball."

"And we certainly aren't going to do that," he said.

They will leave that up to the people in Hinkley, where it is veritable sport.

In July 1996, PG&E--then the largest employer in a community of 3,500, which has since shrunk to about 1,000--agreed to pay $333 million to about 650 people who blamed cancer and other diseases on polluted water leaking from a nearby gas pumping station.

The case dated back to 1951, when spent chromium, which was used as a coolant, leaked from unlined retention ponds and seeped into the ground water under Hinkley, winding its way into the community's drinking wells. According to attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case, some of the town's drinking water was tainted with 140 times the amount of chromium allowed under government standards.

The settlement inspired the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," in which Julia Roberts portrayed the researcher and feisty mother of three whose work helped cement the deal.

Most of the residents involved in that case lived in a contamination plume--as defined by PG&E. But Bakersfield attorney Michael Patrick Dolan has filed another lawsuit, on behalf of 109 people, and is preparing a third on behalf of 120 more, based on new legal approaches.

Dolan and his clients hope to prove that residents who didn't live in the plume were still victims of contamination.

For example, in the 1950s Hinkley launched a volunteer fire department, and for a donation of $5 or $10, the firetruck would drop by a resident's home to fill up a swimming pool or water tanks, which often dried up in summer months.

"I'll give you three guesses where the Fire Department got that water," Dolan said. "PG&E."

But the source of that water, Tremayne said, was a cluster of wells that were dug uphill from the plume of contamination. That would have made it impossible for any of the contaminants to reach that water, making the accusations baseless, he said.

PG&E used to operate a popular swimming pool, and would allow any organization--including families celebrating a child's birthday--to use it. Residents allege that at least one well in the heart of the contamination plume was used to supply water to that pool.

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