By Ruth Musser-Lopez
June 27, 2014. If you want to see a “glimpse” of Hinkley before it is too late, you should go at once to see what was once “a boomtown,” now just a “doomed town.”
Near Hidden River Road and Highway 58, Pacific, Gas & Electric’s (PG&E’s) bulldozer crews are currently hard at work tearing down farmhouses and dairies that once sat above Hinkley’s trophy “hidden river” now a polluted giant toilet of ever spreading underground hexavalent chromium waste contamination.
The epitome of corporate water heists, PG&E’s “take” of the Hinkley aquifer and now much of the property that sits above it, was unconventional, but effective. Though it may have been unplanned…it was still a water heist.
First they polluted the water, then by indirect action they polluted the people…many got sick, some have died, and most simply up and left—either bought out by PG&E or simply in hopeless abandonment.
The Hinkley hexavalent chromium contamination came about as a consequence of Pacific Gas and Electric’s operation of a compressor station there beginning in 1952. The compressor station was a facility located on a pipeline that ran between Texas and Canada and delivered in excess of three billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. The compressor station in Hinkley was one of eight such stations along the line in California. Natural gas available in the line was used to fuel compressors which repressurized the gas to push it through the pipeline. At Hinkley, the compressed gas was cooled with water circulating through two cooling towers. From 1952 until 1966, hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, was added to the cooling water to prevent corrosion to the cooling towers and the water circulation system. Wastewater from the cooling system was disposed of in unlined ponds at the Hinkley site. Beginning in 1964, after the danger of chromium 6 was recognized, the cooling water was treated to remove the chromium before it was disposed in the pools and a non-chromium-based additive was substituted into the cooling system in 1966. As of 1972 the cooling water was pumped into lined evaporation ponds.
These improvements to the system, however, did not undo the ecological havoc that had occurred up until 1972.
In 1988, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, which oversees water quality issues in that portion of the desert, issued a cleanup and abatement order to PG&E to investigate a plume of chromium 6 in the water table. In 1991, the water board issued permits to treat the contaminated groundwater using land treatment units.
In 1993, attorney Ed Masry, with whom Erin Brockovich, a Hinkley resident, was working, filed a multi-plaintiff direct action suit against PG&E, alleging contamination of the town’s drinking water and untoward consequences of that pollution. In 1996, the case was settled for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit until that time. In 2000, the matter became an international cause célèbre, with the release of the blockbuster movie Erin Brockovich, which related a substantially accurate version of events in Hinkley. Contrary to widespread public assumptions, Pacific Gas & Electric’s payment of the $333 million did not redress the underlying problem. Masry and his law firm netted over $100 million in legal fees. Only a few of the plaintiffs received more than $100,000. No physical solution to the contamination problem was effectuated.
In 1997 and 2004, the water board reissued follow-up permits to PG&E for the use of land treatment units in the treatment of the contaminated groundwater around Hinkley. In 2006, with the Hinkley groundwater contamination issue fading from public consciousness, the water board gave permits for two subterranean remediation systems to clean up the source and central areas of the plume. In 2008, however, the issue was resurrected as one of regional and local concern when, amidst the water board’s provision of a permit for Pacific Gas & Electric to apply additional cleanup measures, it issued redrafted cleanup and abatement orders. Steadily over the last six years, the condition of the lingering contamination in Hinkley has grown into a larger and larger public issue as evidence of how the underground plume of chromium 6 continues to migrate through the water table into the area from which local wells draw water used for household purposes has emerged.
The best hydrological data now available indicates the plume is more than six miles long and two miles wide and gradually expanding.
Chromium is the 21st most abundant element in the earth’s crust and as such naturally occurs in rocks, soil, ground water and plants.
Under current guidelines, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency specifies 100 micrograms per liter as the maximum acceptable total chromium contaminant level acceptable in water to be consumed by humans. On July 1, the state of California will reduce the permissible amount of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium to 10 parts per billion.
Pacific Gas and Electric has been wrestling with the contamination issue and has applied a number of experimental cures to the problem which have proven inadequate, including pumping groundwater through a subsurface drip irrigation system and organic matter in the soil around plant root zones to create conditions, which Pacific Gas & Electric hoped would “chemically reduce the level of chromium 6 in the water [reducing] the hexavalent chromium to insoluble trivalent chromium.” Pacific Gas & Electric sought ways of keeping the contaminated water from migrating to other areas of the aquifer and tainting the water there. One effort Pacific Gas & Electric made to prevent the spreading of the plume entailed drawing up to 80 gallons of water per minute from supply wells south of the compression station, pumping it north through new underground pipes and injecting the water outside the northwestern plume boundary. This strategy, Pacific Gas and Electric claimed, was intended to “create a hydraulic barrier designed to prevent spreading of the plume.” While partially effective, that measure did not achieve the goal of reducing the chromium 6 in the water supply to an acceptable level.
As a practical means of ensuring that the tainted water does not end up in the drinking glasses, cooking utensils, showers, baths, toilets and garden hoses of Hinkley residents, PG&E offered to provide every household and business in Hinkley with either a filtration/treatment system to capture the chromium before it would be dispensed at the tap or in the alternative, commercial bottled drinking water.
But with no certain, final and comprehensive cure of the problem in sight, Pacific Gas & Electric in April 2012 began surveying homeowners with regard to their willingness to sell their property and move elsewhere. When roughly two-thirds of those surveyed indicated their readiness to depart the community, PG&E began making offers to individual property owners and undertook appraisals of their properties. As soon as mutually acceptable terms between PG&E and the individual homeowners were arrived at, purchases were made. Since February, houses in Hinkley are being sold to PG&E at a rate of two to four per week. Once the houses are empty, Pacific Gas & Electric has not spared time in having those homes razed, foreclosing any possibility that squatters or anyone else will be tempted to take up residence therein ever again.
In September 2013, the Santa Ana-based law firm Callahan & Blaine filed suit against PG&E in San Bernardino County Superior Court on behalf of a substantial number of Hinkley residents who were not a part of the litigation brought by Masry. Callahan & Blaine are seeking that the plaintiffs be recompensed for the damages they have sustained as a consequence of the continuing contamination and the ongoing expansion of the toxic plume and its threat to the area’s groundwater.
Of issue is that PG&E, in offering “fair market value” for the properties, is benefiting by its deliberate efforts to convert Hinkley to a ghost town. Under various theories, PG&E should be required to pay more for the homes than they are currently offering, since the company is responsible for the depression in Hinkley’s land values. In early 2012, Hinkley’s population stood at 1,900. Today it has dwindled to an estimated 1,300, as residents continue their exodus. Earlier this year, the Barstow Unified School District moved to shutter Hinkley School at the end of the 2012-13 school year last month. The town is down to one market, a post office and a tavern.
Now, by court order or in an effort to avoid further court orders, PG&E in a process of buying out property owners and systematically destroying dwellings and other structures that will forever be no more. Yes, our State of California Department of Water Resources and the Department of Toxic Substances Control has seen fit over the last 20 years to allow PG&E to monitor its own clean up measures. Instead of seizing the property and taking over clean up as the public has repeatedly prayed for as relief, the State has instead acquiesced to corporate influence.
How twisted would it be that just as PG&E has completed the purchase and leveling of Hinkley that suddenly a solution to the chromium 6 pollution problem is found.
Though with “The Destruction of Hinkley” it would seem that the county of San Bernardino and the State of California would have suffered significant losses with a local economy that appears to have entirely collapsed, we have yet to see or hear of any action by our state or county officials for compensation from PG&E for lost revenue in the form of income tax, sales tax, property tax and lost federal funds for public facilities such as schools, post offices, etc.
By Ruth Musser-Lopez