Reporting from Hinkley, Calif. — A plume of chromium-tainted groundwater is once again bearing down on residents of Hinkley, Calif., where more than a decade ago an underdog battle with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spawned a multimillion-dollar settlement and the Oscar-winning film "Erin Brockovich."
FOR THE RECORD:
Water contamination: An article in the Nov. 15 Section A about groundwater contamination in Hinkley in San Bernardino County referred to the substance involved, hexavalent chromium, as a heavy-metal isotope. Hexavalent chromium is not an isotope of chromium but a form of the element whose atoms are missing six electrons. It is found in a number of chemical compounds used for industrial purposes. —
The border of the plume has shifted 1,800 feet beyond a containment boundary set by PG&E in 2008, spreading higher levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing heavy metal isotope linked to stomach cancers and other health hazards, according to state water officials. The isotope also has been discovered in a lower aquifer that, until recently, PG&E believed was protected from contaminated groundwater above it by a thick layer of clay, the officials added.
In 1997, PG&E paid 660 Hinkley residents $333 million to settle lawsuits alleging injuries including intestinal tumors and breast cancer from chromium-laced waste water that had seeped from the utility's disposal ponds between 1951 and 1966, winding its way into the community's drinking wells.
PG&E's handling and reporting of the migrating plume is under investigation by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state regulatory agency responsible for protecting the area's water.
"We definitely know there are violations, and that what PG&E is doing right now to contain the plume is not enough," said Lauri Kemper, assistant executive officer for the water board. "We have the authority to impose fines of up to $5,000 per day for each day the plume exists outside of the boundary set in 2008."
Kemper said the water board has retained a state water attorney to help prepare a legal case against the utility, a process that could take six months.
Utility officials acknowledge that parts of the plume have spread but say it is being controlled by ongoing cleanup efforts. They deny that its spread has violated any legal agreements and said more scientific research is needed to determine whether spikes in concentrations of hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, detected in many local wells could be linked to the plume or to natural occurrences.
"These concentrations remain within the realms of naturally occurring background concentrations," said Robert C. Doss, PG&E principal engineer. "There is no way to determine whether our plume is having an impact or not."
A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for May 2011.
Doss said he understands that the situation "represents a worry about the health of Hinkley families and their investments." But he also suggested that critics have exaggerated the health hazards posed by contamination in the plume's outer edges and have mistakenly interpreted its constantly changing shape as "overall growth."
The amoeba-like plume is about 2 1/2 miles long and a mile wide, and advancing west and northwest at a rate of about a foot a day, officials said.
"In some places the plume grows and then shrinks, in others it might sprout a lobe as it responds to hydrological pressures," Doss said.
As for PG&E's remediation efforts in Hinkley, Doss said, "It's fair to say what we are doing now needs to be supplemented to bring it up to a final cleanup. But we take exception to any assertions that the measures we've taken have not had a positive effect on the problem."
Many property owners in this dusty agricultural town about five miles west of Barstow in San Bernardino County are frustrated with PG&E's efforts to contain the plume and the water board's apparent hesitation to charge the utility with civil violations.
"Obviously, the community would be happy to see us file civil liability complaints against the company," Kemper said. "We are considering that internally. But we haven't yet because we are busy every day trying to stay on top of the situation to ensure they are continuing to clean up this plume."
"They've had 23 years to fix this problem," said Carmela Gonzalez, 44, a lifelong resident who was not part of the original Hinkley lawsuit. "Instead, they've allowed the contamination plume to grow and put fear in the hearts of Hinkley residents that they are still not safe and that their property is worthless."
Added Gonzalez: "People around here no longer trust the water board to do right by Hinkley. PG&E should be helping residents get out of here if they want to by giving them reasonable compensation for their losses."