Reporting from Hinkley — A state survey has not found a disproportionately high number of cancers in Hinkley, a high-desert community that has become the symbol of public fears about exposure to groundwater tainted with carcinogenic chromium 6.
From 1996 to 2008, 196 cancers were identified among residents of the census tract that includes Hinkley — a slightly lower number than the 224 cancers that would have been expected given its demographic characteristics, said epidemiologist John Morgan, who conducted the California Cancer Registry survey.
The survey did not attempt to explain why any individual in Hinkley contracted cancer, nor did it diminish the importance of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. cleaning up a plume of groundwater with elevated levels of chromium 6, Morgan said.
"In this preliminary assessment we only looked at cancer outcomes, not specific types of cancer," Morgan said. "However, we did look at a dozen cancer types in earlier surveys of the same census tract for the years between 1988 and 1998. Overall, the results of those surveys were almost identical to the new findings, and none of the cancers represented a statistical excess."
The findings come as some residents are pushing PG&E to purchase their properties, after tests showed that chromium-tainted groundwater was migrating toward them. That miles-long plume, the result of decades of dumping water tainted with chromium compounds into local waste ponds, was at the center of a $333-million settlement over illnesses and cancers made famous by the movie "Erin Brockovich."
With that in mind, residents of this ranching community about five miles west of Barstow remained skeptical of the survey. Their water supply comes from local wells, and their fear of cancer persists.
"We just want to get the hell out of Hinkley," said Greg Kearney, 64, who shares a 3,000-square-foot ranch house with his wife, Elaine, 63, who has had seven strokes, their 41-year-old daughter, Keri, who has advanced lung cancer, and a younger daughter who has had five miscarriages and gave birth to a son with severe cognitive problems.
Then there is Pinky, an 8-year-old white boxer with thousands of tumors in its mouth and on its head, back, legs and paws.
Surrounded by Christmas decorations in his living room, Kearney said he felt certain that the family's ailments were triggered by years of exposure to chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, a substance found in compounds used in metal plating and other industrial processes.
"But PG&E has said it is not interested in buying our property," he said. "This place is all we have. A few years ago, it was appraised at about $320,000. Now, it's not worth two nickels."
Kearney said that about four months ago, the utility rejected a formal request that it buy his 10-acre homestead. Sunday, PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer said, "We will be talking to the Kearneys. We are sympathetic to their situation."
PG&E expressed an interest last month in buying about 100 properties in Hinkley that are on or near the plume of contaminated groundwater.
As for the cancer survey, Eisenhauer said, "Regardless of what the statistics show, we know people there are concerned about their health, and that is why we are offering to buy properties in the area and why we are cleaning up the groundwater."
Under blustery skies on a recent weekday, a large American flag waved upside down — a sign of distress — in the front yard of Kearney's neighbor Robert Morris.
"We're in trouble out here, and PG&E just keeps lying to us and the state does nothing to protect our water supplies," Morris said. "I think it's interesting that this state survey is coming out at the same time PG&E is offering to buy homes."
Morgan said there was no connection with PG&E's proposal. "I have dedicated my entire life to reducing cancer," he said.
Elsewhere in town, rows of five-gallon bottles of drinking water crowded front porches of dozens of homes in the vicinity of the plume, which is 21/2 miles long and a mile wide. Many residents have hired attorneys to explore their options. The prospect of PG&E buying out so many parcels has raised fears of an exodus that could prompt Barstow Unified School District officials to close Hinkley Elementary/Middle School, a California Distinguished School of 320 students.
"Making this place a ghost town won't help," said Diane Kammeyer, the school principal. "Hinkley students would have to be bused to Barstow."
Ed Kompski of San Diego, who hopes to sell a vacant lot here to the utility, said, "It is pitiful — heartbreaking — what PG&E and the government have done to Hinkley. That's why you'll have a hard time finding anyone who trusts the cancer survey results."
Hinkley activist Carmela Gonzales agreed. "Am I comforted by a survey that says there is no excess of cancer here when I know there is a carcinogen in the water supply?" she said. "No. I don't trust those numbers and I don't feel safe living in Hinkley. Who would?"