Pacific Gas and Electric on Friday agreed to pay $295 million to settle claims by more than 1,000 residents in several Mojave Desert towns who said they were harmed by groundwater contamination, a case made famous by the film "Erin Brockovich."
As part of the settlement, the utility apologized to affected residents in the towns where leaks from gas compressor plants in the 1950s through the 1970s polluted the groundwater basin with chromium.
"Clearly, this situation should never have happened, and we are sorry that it did. It is not the way we do business, and we believe it would not happen in our company today," the utility said.
The apology marked a bittersweet victory in Hinkley, Calif., where residents have blamed cancer deaths and birth defects on the polluted water.
"Well, I think it's great because a lot of [residents] do have health problems," said Brenda McIlvain, a bar owner whose ex-husband will benefit from the settlement. "I think it's great that the ones that signed up on the [lawsuit] will get a little bit of money to help them."
The settlement comes before the trial was supposed to begin and ends the majority of the claims from Hinkley and other towns, including Kettleman Hills, that said their groundwater was contaminated.
"This closes the books on almost all the claims," said Jon Tremayne, a spokesman for PG&E. "The settlement provides closure, and it allows us to focus on the future. We're hopeful it will provide closure for the plaintiffs and allow them to move forward."
The case dated to 1951, when spent chromium, added to cooling water to reduce corrosion, leaked from unlined retention ponds and seeped into the groundwater under Hinkley, making its way into community wells. The plaintiffs' attorneys claimed that some of the town's water supply was tainted with 140 times the amount of chromium allowed under government standards. They suggested that most of the cancers were caused when children played in the water and inhaled particles.
In July 1996, PG&E agreed to pay $333 million to about 650 people who blamed cancer and other diseases on polluted water leaking from a gas pumping station.
That settlement inspired the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," in which Julia Roberts portrayed the feisty researcher and mother of three whose work helped cement the deal.
Tremayne said the Friday settlement covers about 1,100 cases. PG&E still faces about 150 cases, he said.
Gloria Darling, Barstow's mayor pro tem, lived in Hinkley from 1969 to 1984. She believes she developed various gynecological and gastrointestinal problems from chromium contamination but was disqualified from joining the lawsuit because of a statute of limitations.
"I think it's a very good thing for the community, especially for those who lived there and suffered," Darling said Friday. "When I was helping people fill out the questionnaires, there were people who called me with teenage daughters who'd already had hysterectomies.... All the people I've seen who suffered, all the teenagers and children, they could never pay enough."