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Pollution issue divides desert town as deadline nears

Residents of Hinkley, made famous by "Erin Brockovich," weigh an offer by PG&E to buy homes near chromium-tainted water. Animosity is high between residents wanting to sell and those opting to stay.

October 14, 2012|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • The desert stretches into the distance from one of the homes in Hinkley that Pacific Gas & Electric has offered to buy because of a plume of polluted groundwater.
The desert stretches into the distance from one of the homes in Hinkley that… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

The high desert town of Hinkley is being torn apart, neighbor by neighbor, as homeowners grapple with a plume of carcinogenic pollution made famous by a Hollywood movie.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which is responsible for the pollution, has given homeowners until Monday to decide whether to sell their homes. PG&E has offered to buy out 314 homeowners who live within a mile of the chromium-tainted plume of groundwater.

Those accepting the offer are angering neighbors because the vacated homes are eroding an isolated ranching community of 800 people already edging toward ghost town.

Even worse, in the eyes of some, is that anyone who sells would not participate in legal actions against PG&E, weakening the hand of homeowners who believe a large, united front gives them the best chance of a big payout from a pending lawsuit against the company.

Homeowners who stay put will have a water treatment system installed by PG&E at no charge.

Tensions are playing out in contentious town hall meetings and neighborhoods. Residents who have spoken out in favor of or against the PG&E home purchase plan have become targets of rumors, suspicions and threatening telephone calls.

"That Oct. 15 deadline is chewing on people's consciences, so they're confused, scared and making rash decisions," said Jon Quass, a junior high school teacher and member of an 18-month-old community advisory committee created to help residents resolve issues with one another and the utility.

"I got a spooky call the other day from someone who said, 'You're not guaranteed a tomorrow,'" said Quass, who believes he was threatened because he supports PG&E's option to install a water treatment system.

"I'm not leaving everything I worked so hard for here," he said. "If I'm the last man standing in Hinkley, so be it."

The contamination plume, the result of decades of dumping chromium-tainted water into local waste ponds, was at the center of a $333-million settlement in 1997 over illnesses and cancers made famous by the movie "Erin Brockovich."

But the contamination continued to spread after that settlement, renewing the community outcry. In 2008, PG&E offered to buy 100 homes on or near the plume. Many residents remained skeptical about the offer, or joined a new round of litigation against PG&E.

A year ago, in a final offer, the utility expanded eligibility to include the 314 properties near the plume, which is two miles long, a mile wide and advancing north at a rate of about a foot a year. Also included were properties with wells showing signs of hexavalent chromium 6, no matter how slight.

So far, PG&E has bought 51 of the homes, most of which were boarded up or torn down and replaced with alfalfa fields. Thirty-four more homes are in escrow and roughly two-thirds of the other homeowners have expressed an interest in selling, the utility said.

"We prefer that people stay and take the water treatment systems," Denny Boyles, a spokesman for PG&E, said. "We prefer there be a Hinkley."

Ranchers Tom and Helen Hare, both 79, are not sure that is possible. Property values continue to plummet amid relentless negative publicity.

"Hinkley is ruined," said Tom Hare as he watched the sun go down on the 26 acres of alfalfa fields and fruit orchards he planted three decades ago.

"I don't want to leave, but I don't want to be left holding the bag," said Hare, who is in talks with PG&E on the sale of his home. "If we stay, will there be a market for our place? Would we end up all by ourselves here?"

The prospect of PG&E buying out so many parcels has raised fears of an exodus that could prompt the Barstow Unified School District to close Hinkley Elementary/Middle School, a California Distinguished School of 277 students. Five years ago, nearly 600 students attended the campus.

Some of Hinkley's leading community activists have decided it's time to leave. Among them are Daron Banks, who is negotiating the sale of his 3,800-square-foot home, and his mother-in-law, Roberta Walker, who was the lead plaintiff in the original lawsuit

That suit gave birth to the 2000 film and brought an Oscar to actress Julia Roberts, who played Brockovich, the legal researcher who developed the case against PG&E.

Walker bought her current hilltop home on the north end of town with a portion of the 1997 lawsuit settlement — slightly less than $1 million — believing that the property was miles away from the contamination and out of harm's way.

The advance of the plume toward her home is only one of the reasons Walker is negotiating the sale.

"I've been getting threatening letters and telephone calls from people who think what I am doing is somehow interfering with their efforts to get all they can from PG&E for their properties," Walker said. "The community is falling apart. Soon there will be nothing left."

Quass agrees, up to a point. He plans to buy 10 acres in Hinkley.

"This chapter of Hinkley's history is over," he said. "The new chapter will be written by the people who stay."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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