State Water Board OKs PG&E H2O Clean-up & Monitoring

HINKLEY—(December 30) The Lahontan Region Water Quality Control Board has approved Pacific Gas & Electric’s proposals to utilize extraction wells to limit the migration of chromium six in the water table in, at, around and below Hinkley and to conduct hydraulic testing to ascertain the effectiveness of those measures in this community that has seen its population diminish as the result of severe water contamination in the area.
On December 19, California Water Quality Control Board, Lahontan Region Assistant Executive Officer Lauri Kemper informed Kevin Sullivan, the director of chromium remediation for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) that his team would be permitted to undertake the effort to trace the extent of the southern chromium 6 plume in Hinkley.
Three days later, In a letter dated December 22 to Sullivan, the Lahontan Region Water Quality Control Board’s executive officer, Patty Kouyoumdjian, informed PG&E its most recently formulated plan to remove chromium 6 from Hinkley’s groundwater was acceptable.
In the December 19 missive, Kemper said the water board’s prosecution team will not pursue enforcement actions against PG&E if the tests fail to achieve the data measurement the board has specified in its earlier cleanup and abatement order to the company, if the company has a contingency plan at the ready and actuates it if necessary.
Pacific Gas & Electric is under a standing order to regularly make assessments of the groundwater contamination at Hinkley and deliver that data to the Water Quality Control Board on a monthly basis.
Chromium 6 is the common name of hexavalent chromium.
Hexavalent chromium contamination in Hinkley 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. 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.
On August 6, 2008, the Water Quality Control Board issued an order to PG&E to clean up and abate waste discharges containing hexavalent chromium and total chromium to groundwater in the area in, around and under Hinkley. The order called upon Pacific Gas & Electric to put in place a remediation program to reduce the chromium to background levels and set an interim maximum background level of 4 parts per billion.
On March 14, 2012, the board intensified the requirements pertaining to PG&E so that hydraulic containment of chromium-affected groundwater south of Thompson Road in Hinkley was effectuated. Part of the strategy Pacific Gas & Electric proposed was utilizing a groundwater extraction system involving drawing water from certain wells situated in the basin to prevent further plume migration.
Nearly three months ago, on October 3, PG&E proposed undertaking hydraulic testing in the northern area of the southern chromium plume. According to the Lahontan report, recent monitoring data indicated some of the remedial actions have been effective at hydraulic containment and at either reducing or stabilizing the chromium containment area.
According to Kouyoumdjian’s December 22 letter, however, chromium 6 has migrated from the upper end of the aquifer to the lower aquifer, raising the hexavalent chromium concentrations there above the current drinking water standards.
Kouyounmdjian said that in the 36 months from July 2011 to July 2014, the concentration of chromium 6 increased from 9 to 19 parts per billion in water drawn from a location in the lower aquifer at Acacia Street east of Mountain View Road. In addition, hexavalent chromium concentrations increased between 2013 and 2014 from 7.8 to 24 parts per billion in a monitoring well in the lower aquifer located southeast of Santa Fe Avenue and Mountain View Road.
On November 6 of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric proposed initiating extraction at selected wells to provide containment of the plume if data from monitoring wells showed increasing hexavalent chromium concentrations outside or within the identified plume.
Environmental consultants working with PG&E, Arcadis and CH2M, have called for increasing extraction at certain points in the aquifer and increasing extraction at other positions to stabilize the plume.

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