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PG&E Accord Doesn't End the Suffering

Despite an apology and $295-million settlement, residents struggle to cope with cancer and chronic ailments linked to tainted groundwater.

February 05, 2006|Andrew H. Malcolm | Times Staff Writer

HINKLEY, Calif. — Lynn Morris doesn't know if she's covered by Friday's $295-million settlement by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for groundwater contamination in and around this tiny, windblown community 125 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Neither does Tom Owens, Silvestre Castillo or hundreds of others who live in this hardscrabble corner of the Mojave Desert with 1,000 residents. But as word of the latest settlement began to seep through town, one thing seemed clear, money or not: The suffering is not over.

"We've been waiting so long, we'll be happy when we hear," said one victim, who has lupus and didn't want her name used. "But we're not going to get better, settlement or not."

Friday's apology and agreement to pay $295 million to about 1,100 residents of Hinkley, Kettleman Hills and other towns is the second such settlement. "This situation should never have happened, and we are sorry it did," a PG&E spokesman said.

In 1996, the company agreed to pay $333 million to 650 people who claimed that cancer and other chronic ailments were caused by chromium-tainted water leaking from Hinkley's natural gas pumping station. That initial settlement formed the basis for the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," for which Julia Roberts won the best actress Academy Award.

Brockovich, who was a consultant to the plaintiffs' lawyers in the most recent settlement, called it "bittersweet." She said PG&E's apology was "a huge step." The pollution of the area, she said, "has cost everybody. For the corporation, it's the payout; for the residents who were impacted, it cost their health."

"The problem is," said Will Holland, a local truck driver, "the suffering will go on here as long as any of us stay alive." Holland's wife, Erin, had a hysterectomy and has a breast lump and frequent headaches and nosebleeds. Their daughters, Sarah, 26, and Evah, 22, do not menstruate and have chronic back problems, Holland said.

The chromium problem dates to 1951. Spent chromium, used to reduce corrosion in cooling lines, seeped from open retention ponds into local groundwater. Will Holland said he remembers water during his childhood smelling like sulfur.

Other children swam in PG&E ponds. Residents recall merciless summers when local firetrucks delivered water donated by PG&E. As a Brownie and Girl Scout, Lynn Morris spent many childhood days camped out at a PG&E picnic ground.

Morris said she has steady back pain, an ovarian tumor and dental troubles, and her son, Jeremy, had a facial tumor removed. "It's all got to be more than coincidence," she said.

The claimed maladies are legion.

Tom Owens, an unemployed railroad machinist who has lived here 36 of his 58 years, said he has trouble breathing at times and chronic dental difficulties.

His wife, Kathleen, had a miscarriage, and at age 19 his son Richard lost all his hair.

Owens suspects he has other ailments, but like many here he is without health coverage and isn't sure. "A lot of my friends have some kind of cancer," he said, adding, "Sure, we swam in the ponds. Who knew?"

In her 50s, Lynn Tindell said she has an arthritic back and numerous allergies like her children. She said she takes 10 medications daily and can't remember life without back pain.

"Years ago," she said, "You just figured, 'Geez, I must be decrepit early.' People don't talk about such things much. Whoever thinks they're being poisoned?"

In the Castillo family, everyone has bad backs and gastrointestinal problems, including frequent cramping, plus a fear of getting no settlement.

"The suffering is ongoing," said Gloria Darling, a former mayor. "You have heart problems, back pain, portions of intestines removed, 13-year-olds with hysterectomies. And the majority of people are without insurance."

So ubiquitous is the suffering that it has become a sick joke. "Whenever anyone has any physical problem now," said Tindell, who got $50,000 from the first settlement. "Everyone just says, 'Oh, it's the chromium.' "

By late afternoon Saturday, a small crowd was gathering at Our Place, the local bar. "People don't want to get their settlement hopes up too much," said owner Brenda McIlvain, whose ex-husband may benefit. "But there's always hope."

Regulars read the settlement news to each other out loud, then shared stories of inequities from the first settlement -- people left out, visitors who received more than residents. Jeff Vinson complained that Brockovich never paid him for help with research for the initial lawsuit.

"This'll never be over," said Tim Bell.

But even after all the gloomy talk at the bar much of the afternoon, McIlvain, Owens, Tindell and others could turn their thoughts to a happier subject. On a moment's notice, when someone remembered today's Super Bowl, the mood immediately brightened. Everyone got up and pitched in to help prepare the bar and patio for the Super Bowl party. There, McIlvain will be serving two varieties of elk chili -- mild and Mojave. "I can't wait," Owens said.

Times staff writer Peter Y. Hong contributed to this report.

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