(November 2) The community of Hinkley is trending toward extinction as a significant number of its residents are electing to pack up and leave in the face of what appears to be an ineradicable hexavalent chromium contamination problem. That exodus is being hastened by the willingness of the entity responsible for the contamination to essentially buy them out as part of a plan to convert the rustic desert hamlet into a ghost town.
Contrary to widespread public assumptions, Pacific Gas & Electric’s payment of $333 million in 1996 as part of what was then the largest settlement in a direct action lawsuit in U.S. history did not redress the underlying problem.
Hinkley, with a population of something over 1,900, is an unincorporated zone in San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert just north of State Highway 58, 14 miles northwest of Barstow, 59 miles east of Mojave, and 47 miles north of Victorville.
The town came to international prominence in 2000 with the release of the blockbuster movie Erin Brokovich, in which Pacific Gas and Electric was portrayed as a corporate villain that had recklessly endangered the lives and health of Hinkley’s residents. The movie was a substantially accurate version of what had actually occurred.
The Hinkley chromium 6 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 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. Beginning in 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 investigate a plume of chromium 6 in the water table.
In 1991, 1997 and 2004, the water board issued permits to treat the contaminated groundwater using land treatment units. 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 four 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 about six miles long and two miles wide and gradually expanding.
Pacific Gas and Electric has been mandated and tasked to take a number of steps to ensure that the tainted water does not end up in the drinking glasses, cooking utensils, showers, baths, toilets and garden hoses of Hinkley residents.
Essentially, all or nearly all of those strategies have been deemed ineffective or inadequate to the task of preventing human consumption of the hexavalent chromium, which is a known carcinogen that is harmful in even the most minute of quantities.
Among those strategies was one championed by Pacific Gas & Electric that called for “irrigating crops as an effective means of providing both hydraulic control and treatment of extracted hexavalent chromium tainted water.” That process entailed pumping groundwater through a subsurface drip irrigation system and organic matter in the soil around plant root zones to create conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric claimed, would “chemically reduce the level of chromium 6 in the water. Hexavalent chromium is naturally reduced to insoluble trivalent chromium. Trivalent chromium joins and becomes bound with the trivalent chromium naturally occurring in the subsurface soil.” Using this method, Pacific Gas and Electric maintained in 2009 that “Total hexavalent chromium concentrations in extracted groundwater have decreased from approximately 60 micrograms per liter in 2004 to approximately 20 micrograms per liter today.”
The effectiveness of that approach was questioned by others, including the water board and residents of the area.
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. The California state standard is half that at 50 micrograms per liter. But that standard applies to the most beneficent form of chromium, and not hexavalent chromium or chromium 6.
Trivalent chromium – chromium 3 – is the dominant form of chromium in nature, and is virtually insoluble in water and stable and immobile in soil. Hexavalent chromium – chromium six – is not abundant in nature, is soluble in water and is a potential carcinogen if inhaled.
For that reason, Pacific Gas and Electric believes that a strategy of converting the hexavalent chromium to trivalent chromium is an acceptable one. Pacific Gas & Electric has never been able to execute upon that theory in actuality, however.
In addition to treating the water within the water table, 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.
Pacific Gas & Electric was hamstrung in its undertaking by a multitude of challenges and obstacles that included low background chromium levels in the Hinkley area, a legacy of extensive agricultural use in the area that introduced other contaminants unrelated to chromium 6 into the water table, ongoing active use of the aquifer, potential revisions of the chromium standard and difficulty in accessing all portions of the plume.
Pacific Gas and Electric, in an assertion disputed by many environmentalists and local activists, claims that there are average chromium background levels of 1.2 micrograms per liter in the Hinkley area and maximum chromium background levels of 3.1 microgram per liter in certain areas around Hinkley.
That assertion was attacked by critics as an attempt by Pacific Gas and Electric to lower the degree of clean-up work it should have been required to do.
With the continuing migration of the plume, Pacific Gas & Electric offered to provide every household and business in Hinkley with a filtration/treatment system to capture the chromium before it would be dispensed at the tap. Last year it began supplying all homes and businesses in the area with commercial drinking water.
But with no certain, final and comprehensive cure of the problem in sight, Pacific Gas & Electric at the corporate level began casting about for some way out of the dilemma the operators of that company two generations ago created. A possible solution? Buying the entire town of Hinkley, lock, stock and barrel.
To test that approach, in April, Pacific Gas & Electric sampled the attitude of the 300 Hinkley homeowners most impacted by chromium 6 groundwater contamination. They offered them, essentially, three options. Under option one, the company offered to continue to supply them with bottled water, apparently into perpetuity. Option two consisted of the company replacing in its entirely each home’s water hook-up and piping and plumbing arrangements, and providing each with a state of the art filtration, purification and treatment system. The third option was that Pacific Gas & Electricity would purchase their property at fair market value, providing them with enough money to move elsewhere. The residents were given an October 15 decision deadline.
Remarkably, two-thirds of the homeowners – 200 – accepted Pacific Gas & Electric’s offer to buy out their property. The process is by no means complete, as the properties yet need to be appraised and the full terms of the sales have to be negotiated and determined. Moreover, fully one third of the queried residents have not indicated a willingness to leave. And there were at least 200 other homeowners and another 100 or so property owners who have not been approached by Pacific Gas & Electric about their readiness to sell their land and go. But the startling number of residents who appear prepared to simply sell out and depart town altogether raises questions about the viability of the community as a lasting concern. Once homeowners begin their exodus, property values are likely to plummet and the customer base for most of the local businesses will diminish, leading to their closure. Some remaining property or homeowners may continue to hang on, either because they do not view living in solitude in a negative light or because they believe that Pacific Gas & Electric might be induced to up its offers to achieve complete ownership and autonomy over the area.
At issue are a few public facilities in the area and what their fate would be in the event of the essential shut down of the town. Hinkley Elementary Middle School is maintained and operated by the Barstow Unified School District. In addition to students from Hinkley, the school draws about fifty others from outside town. If the school were to be shuttered, the district would likely ask to be recompensed in some way, perhaps involving Pacific Gas & Electric’s purchase of the school site along with an agreement to partially defray the cost of a replacement school.
Despite the expense, Pacific Gas & Electric appears to be prepared to make a de facto purchase of the town. That purchase would, until the plume migrates to another populated area, stanch the flow of money being spent to redress the local hexavalent chromium contamination problem.