Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has expressed interest in buying about 100 properties in the town of Hinkley, Calif., that are near a plume of groundwater tainted by cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.
The utility, which reached a $333-million settlement with 660 Hinkley residents in 1997 for alleged injuries from chromium-laced water that leaked from its disposal ponds, hand-delivered letters last week expressing interest in purchasing the homes.
"Some folks have called us back wanting to know more. But we haven't made any offers yet," company spokesman Jeff Smith said Tuesday. He added: "If people are interested in selling, we're interested in buying. We're prepared to buy all 100 properties."
If all goes according to plan, Smith said, "We hope to have this resolved as soon as possible. But if there are folks who are not interested right now, but come back in a few months, we'll talk with them."
The company is particularly interested in acquiring homes on or near the boundary of the plume of contaminated underground water, which is more than 2 ½ miles long and 1 mile wide. It also has expressed interest in homes where tests have shown elevated levels of chromium in the water, and properties where owners could affect the plume's behavior by pumping groundwater.
"We are also interesting in talking to homeowners in areas we might want for remediation efforts," Smith said.
The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state regulatory agency responsible for protecting the area's water, is investigating how the utility handled and reported its testing for chromium.
Northern borders of the plume have crept about 1,800 feet beyond a containment boundary set by PG&E in 2008, and tests have shown elevated levels of hexavalent chromium in domestic and agricultural water supplies. Hexavalent chromium exposure has been linked to stomach tumors and other health hazards, according to state water officials.
The company's offer to buy so many homes in the economically hard-hit farming community about five miles west of Barstow drew mixed reactions.
Lillie Stone, 63, who shares a two-story home with her disabled husband, Jim, about half a mile away from the plume's eastern boundary, said, "I got a letter from PG&E, but I don't know where I stand on this matter, other than in the dark."
"Some folks around here have told us not to sign anything until after a local meeting this weekend," she said. "I have a home we built from scratch and 15 acres. Will they offer us fair market value in a depressed market? Will they let us look for 15 acres someplace else? We don't know where to start."
PG&E did not elaborate on its potential offers. "Every potential transaction will be unique," Smith said. "Our goal is to work with these folks to make an equitable and fair deal, an offer they can be comfortable with."