Needles Facing Chromium 6 Contamination Rivaling That In Hinkley

(July 19) NEEDLES — Lately, and for the past two decades, the hexavalent chromium contamination problem in Hinkley has garnered local, regional, state, national and international attention, heightened by the 2000 release of the blockbuster movie Erin Brockovich.  But at another location in the Mojave Desert within San Bernardino County, a chromium six contamination problem has been festering equally as long and the company that perpetuated it, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, has only recently gone public with details relating to what is believed to be the next stage of its remediation effort.
The plan now being mapped out will be applied only to contamination emanating directly from that company’s local plant site and will not redress soil and aquifer pollution that resulted when hexavalent chromium-laced soil was dumped elsewhere around the community.
Pacific Gas and Electric, known by its acronym PG&E, now acknowledges that its past practices led to the monumental environmental problems now dogging different portions of the far-flung Mojave Desert. It is ironic that the hexavalent chromium contamination has manifested in the environs of two San Bernardino County cities that today are in eclipse but once were considered among the county’s major cities and populated areas. Hinkley lies on the extended outskirts of Barstow. Both Needles and Barstow are railroad towns, ones that were key locations along the Southern Pacific Railroad when it was established before the turn of the 20th Century as an alternate transcontinental route to the northlying Union Pacific. At one point  in the late 19th Century, Needles, where the railroad tracks came across the Colorado River on what was then a state-of-the art bridge, and Barstow, which would become the home of the biggest railroad yard in the world, were the third and fourth largest cities in San Bernardino County. Today they rank as the smallest and sixth smallest, in terms of population, of the county’s 24 incorporated municipalities.
It was midway in the 20th Century that Pacific Gas and Electric, in tapping into the vast natural gas reserves of west Texas and east New Mexico, would come to build a pipeline that spanned from Texas across New Mexico, Arizona, and then west and northward through California to Oregon, Washington and into Canada, leading to the dilemma now facing Hinkley and Needles, and indeed several other communities where the hexavalent chromium problem is less publicized, today.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Pacific Gas and Electric undertook the construction of the pipeline, initiating its operation in 1952. Located along the gas line were compressor stations which utilized the natural gas available in the line as fuel for compressors which pressurized and thus pushed the gas through the pipeline to a multitude of destinations, delivering in excess of three billion cubic feet of natural gas to customers per day. Compressor stations in Needles and Hinkley were two of eight such stations along the line in California. The compressed gas was cooled with water circulating through cooling towers located at the compressor stations. 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 PG&E compressor sites.
It had been known for years that hexavalent chromium was toxic. By 1963, evidence had accumulated to show that it was not only lethally toxic in certain quantities, but highly damaging to biological systems in minute quantities, as well as a persistent contaminant resistant to molecular breakdown. After these dangers were realized, beginning in 1964, the cooling water in PG&E’s gas pressurizing systems was treated to remove the chromium before it was disposed in the pools. 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.
Those changes, however, did not undo the ecological havoc that had occurred up until 1972.
While the problems existed at or near cooling stations all along the pipeline from Texas to Canada, it was in Hinkley, an unincorporated zone in San Bernardino County just north of State Highway 58, 14 miles northwest of Barstow, 59 miles east of Mojave, and 47 miles north of Victorville, where the contamination crisis would loom largest into public view.
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 PG&E 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.
Contrary to widespread public assumptions, Pacific Gas & Electric’s payment of the $333 million did not redress the underlying problem.
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 five 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 Hinkley plume is more than six miles long and two miles wide and gradually expanding.
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, Pacific Gas and Electric has tested and applied a variety of strategies in the Hinkley area, including “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.
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.
At a practical level in Hinkley, PG&E found its immediate options to consist of installing comprehensive water treatment systems at each residence or supplying each household with bottled water while efforts to deal with the aquifer progressed. More recently, the company has settled upon a strategy of simply buying out the town’s residents, that is, purchasing their homes and then demolishing them in an effort to convert Hinkley to a ghost town. That effort appears to be succeeding. The town’s population stood at 1,900 in early 2012. Today it is down to an estimated 1,300. The company is purchasing and razing houses at a rate of two to three each week. The Barstow Unified School District this year elected to shut down Hinkley School. With the anticipated demise of Hinkley’s last three remaining major institutions of civilization – the local market, the post office and the local bar – the town at the current rate will be entirely depopulated sometime in 2016.
Across the county, in Needles, PG&E’s dealing with the Chromium 6 contamination has received far less public scrutiny.
In Needles, the plume originated at what PG&E refers to as the Topock Compressor Station.
Clean up at Topock has been going on for well over a decade. PG&E constructed a  treatment plant that utilizes copious amounts of water. In addition, tanker trucks have been hauling off earth, water and  waste to a hazardous material disposal site near Bakersfield.  Only recently, within the last five months, has PG&E gone public with references to its cleanup efforts. All previous hearings relating to the chromium 6 contamination were not easily accessible to those from the Needles community, being held before the Colorado River Water Quality Control Board, which meets in La Quinta in Riverside County. In this way, the local community has remained in the dark about  the situation,
At this point, Pacific Gas and Electric believes, or at least hopes, that it will be able to apply a different and far less expensive fix to the problem in Needles than was the case in Hinkley.
Indeed, PG&E has a few advantages, at present, with regard to the original source of contamination it did not and does not have in Hinkley. Conversely, an even larger problem hangs like a specter over Needles: the proximity of the Colorado River and the possibility the contamination plume will reach  or has already reached the drinking supply for millions of people in California, Arizona and Mexico. And there is also the consideration that two decades ago some chromium 6 contaminated soil or sludge was moved away from its site of origin to at least two other spots around the Needles community, greatly complicating the remediation challenge.
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 6 – 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 method of treatment. Pacific Gas & Electric has never been able to execute upon that theory in actuality, however.
In the Hinkley area, Pacific Gas & Electric was hamstrung in its undertaking by a multitude of challenges and obstacles that included low background chromium levels, 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.
According to PG&E, in Needles the plume is north and west of the compressor station and has yet to reach the Colorado River, remaining for the time being, according to PG&E, stationary. One advantage the company has in Needles that it does not have in Hinkley, according to PG&E, is that there is no active pumping out of the aquifer, leaving the subsurface body of water relatively immobile.
There is evidence, however, that hexavalent chromium-containing sludge was removed from the Topock site and dumped directly into Bat Cave Wash, where surface runoff releases directly to the Colorado River. There is a substantial natural dike underground between the wash and the river which holds heavy metals back from the river, and there are reports that this area is saturated with Chromium 6.
In the early 1990s, there had been some agitation within the community with regard to hexavalent chromium contamination. This came to a crisis point in 1993 when residents alleged that contaminated soil tainted with chromium 6 had been brought up Highway 95 from the PG&E plant and was deposited in the Needles landfill just south of the southernmost residential area in Needles. The Bureau of Land Management owns the land upon which the landfill is located and had leased it to the county of San Bernardino, which in turn subleased it to the city of Needles. A dispute ensued among the three agencies over which was responsible for allowing the contaminated soil to be disposed at the landfill. From the landfill, the contamination could potentially migrate to the river. The problem was exacerbated by a partial operational failure at the Needles sewer plant at that time, resulting in untreated sewer sludge being deposited in the landfill, reportedly on top of the hexavalent chromium-laden soil.
In Needles today, PG&E’s remediation effort is focused solely on the Topock site and currently makes no reference to the landfill. Pacific Gas and Electric’s game plan is to use a so-called in-situ reduction process, by which a filter will be laid into the ground and the water in the aquifer drawn through it. The filter is to be built by the introduction of organic matter in the form of ethanol into the water simultaneous to the oxygenating of the water. Naturally present bacteria will consume the ethanol and process the oxygen into carbon dioxide, in time consuming the oxygen. Before all of the oxygen is consumed, however, a sizable colony of bacteria will be created. When all of the oxygen is depleted, this will leave an anaerobic zone within which hexavalent chromium will be converted to trivalent chromium, PG&E postulates. Since trivalent chromium is insoluble in water, it can be removed.
If the process passes muster with lawyers, hydrologists, biologists, physicists and engineers with the California Water Resources Board, the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, it will be given approval. A combination of state and federal agencies and the tribe have ownership or jurisdiction over Topock.
At issue in the approval of the proposed filtration process is minimization or elimination of the possibility that the subsurface disturbances of the water table will result in the plume migrating any further toward the river. While at present the plume is significantly smaller than the plume in Hinkley, the concentration of hexavalent chromium within it is much higher.
PG&E has projected that it can begin the treatment process by Fall 2014 if it can obtain all of the required permits in a timely manner. If the process works as envisioned, the cleanup could be completed as early as 2034, PGE has optimistically suggested. More realistically, the remediation would likely not be complete until 2050 or beyond.

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