Archive for March, 2013

PG&E officially declines Hinkley School’s request for funding

Weighs decision to continue with water system installment

STAFF WRITER | Desert Dispatch

HINKLEY • Closing Hinkley School in June will save Barstow Unified School District $300,000.

That’s the amount the school district requested from Pacific Gas and Electric to keep it open for the 2013-14 school year.

On Friday, BUSD Superintendent Jeff Malan said he was disappointed and disheartened to hear the company declined the district’s request for the company to save the school.

“There were proposals that were short-term and long-term that we requested from PG&E to keep the school open,” Malan said. “It’s just unfortunate.”

PG&E executive Ray Gonzalez sent a letter to Malan on Thursday stating that their request was “not consistent with our (PG&E’s) traditional support of educational programs.”

“We will, however, continue to work with the Hinkley community and the school district to find other ways to support and create opportunities for Hinkley students,” the letter read.

The San Francisco-based utility company paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements after hexavalent chromium seeped into the town’s groundwater in the ’50s and ’60s. PG&E used hexavalent chromium to prevent rust in cooling towers at the natural gas pumping plant, discharging wastewater containing the chemical into unlined holding ponds, according to the Lahontan Water Board.

The contamination, court cases and settlement were the inspiration for the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.”

Lahontan is working with PG&E to cleanup contamination in the rural desert town about 15 miles northwest of Barstow.

But the cleanup ordered by the regional water regulatory agency isn’t expected to be completed for 40 years. The town’s population has seen recent dramatic decline as more families are leaving and PG&E is purchasing homes that may be affected by the contaminated groundwater, reducing the number of students attending the school.

Hinkley School services grades K-8 and has been recognized as one of California’s distinguished schools for the past three years. The community pleaded with the school board to keep it open, but ultimately board members voted 4-1 last month to shut it down at the end of the current school year.

Karen Moon, a seventh-grade pre-algebra and P.E. teacher at Hinkley for the past nine years, said she was sad to hear that the school was closing, though not surprised.

“With the enrollment dwindling and so many families being bought out, I understand the district’s decision,” she said. “It’s sad for the seventh-graders because I know they would have liked to graduate from here.”

PG&E’s letter to BUSD’s superintendent also addressed a settlement made with Lahontan to install a permanent water system at the school. Construction was expected to begin on the $1.8 million project in the summer.

“Based on the school board’s decision to close the Hinkley School, PG&E plans to hold off on construction of the water system while we consult with the Lahontan Water Board on how best to proceed,” the letter read.

Lahontan officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

Brooke Self can be reached at or 760-256-4123.


Erin Brockovich: The Real-Life Unhappy Ending


HINKLEY, Calif. – We all love a neat, tidy Hollywood ending to a David and Goliath story. Sadly, in the real world, they are hard to come by. More often than not, the little guy might win a battle, but Goliath prevails over the long haul — winning the war.

Before I went to Hinkley, I did, of course, watch the movie once again. As it turns out Erin Brockovich is accurate in many respects.

You might remember the woman who gets a big check at the end of the movie after the down-on-her-luck, crusading legal assistant has brought a giant utility to its knees for polluting the groundwater beneath the tiny desert town half way between L.A. and Las Vegas.

In the movie, she was known as Donna Jensen (and played by Marg Helgenberger). There is no real-life Donna Jensen — the details of her story are a composite of several real-life travails.

But Roberta Walker was the main inspiration. Naturally, it was not long after I met her that I asked her what she thought of the movie.

“Oh, it was a piece of crap,” she said. “The only true thing about the movie is that [Pacific Gas and Electric] poisoned us. We didn’t bring a giant to their knees obviously; we just woke them up — woke up the dragon.”

Roberta is not allowed to say how much she got from the $333 million dollar settlement that gave the screenwriters such a nice bow to wrap up the movie. It was, however, enough to allow her and her husband to build a new home on a hill overlooking Hinkley.

“We loved it here, everything about it,” she told me. “The peace, the quiet, the privacy, and we built it. We had our well tested…and there was no chromium.”

But there is now. And Roberta is looking to move again — out of Hinkley. But that does not guarantee she will find chromium-6 free water.

The real-life Erin Brockovich has moved onto the national stage as a consumer advocate and now curates a crowd-sourced map of reported cancer clusters. It is a real eye-opener.

A few years ago, The Environmental Working Group did a study of U.S. tap water, and it found a chrome-plated, potentially carcinogenic mess. They tested tap water samples from 35 cities and found chromium-6 in 31 of them.

The highest concentration EWG discovered, came from Norman, Oklahoma. But at nearly 13 parts per billion, the water there is still considered safe according to the 22-year-old EPA standard (100 ppb). It is, however, more than 600 times greater than the public health goal established by the California Environmental Protection Agency in the wake of the Hinkley well poisoning scandal.

Naturally, I was wondering about the tap water in my office/apartment in Bethesda, Maryland. Turns out it is .19 parts per billion (ppb.) That is ten times more Chromium-6 than the Cal/EPA public health goal.

I am a big proponent of tap water. I think the widespread use of bottled water is an environmental disaster. So I bought myself a countertop filter. And now I won’t drink anything straight from the tap anymore. I might soon upgrade to an under-sink model.

It is a shame that we cannot be more confident about the water that flows into our homes. Regulators at the state and federal level say they have to weigh public health concerns against the economic realities of tougher drinking water standards.

In the U.S., we have a Food and Drug Administration to insure that any chemicals we ingest in the form of drugs are safe before they are allowed on the market.

Should we apply the same burden of proof to chemicals that are widely used by industry, which all too frequently poison our wells?

David Heath of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this report.


Miles O’Brien investigated this story in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity. Go to their website here for an in-depth look at how industry scientists stalled government action on chromium-6.

The Hinkley Community Advisory Committee and Project Navigator, Ltd. Invites you and your family to their 1st Annual Community BBQ


The Hinkley Community Advisory Committee and
Project Navigator, Ltd. Invites you and your family
to their 1st Annual Community BBQ




Saturday, March 16, 2013
11:00am to 2:00pm

CAC IRP Manager Office
22562 Aquarius Rd.
Hinkley, CA 92347

Click here to download the included Spanish version.

Hinkley residents seeking lawsuit to save school

Jim Steinberg, Staff Writer for The Sun

HINKLEY – Residents in this High Desert town – angered that that their only school is set for closure – are recruiting signatures for a class-action lawsuit against the Barstow Unified School District to save the school.

“We are looking for people to sign up as plaintiffs in a lawsuit to keep the school open,” Danny Hernandez, said during a regularly scheduled meeting of the town’s Community Advisory Committee Thursday night.

Hernandez is a board member of the group, which represents Hinkley residents in discussions with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and water regulators.

Hinkley’s water problems became well-known after the year 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” which told of Hinkley’s chromium 6 groundwater plume and Brockovich’s legal battle with PG&E, accusing the company of polluting the water.

Decades ago, PG&E used chromium 6 in cooling towers at its large natural gas pumping station in Hinkley. Periodically the water would be drained into unlined ponds, a common practice at that time, which allowed chromium 6 to seep into the community’s groundwater.

Since then, the town’s population has dwindled, and some have blamed the decreasing numbers for the school’s closure.

Several community members, after consulting with an attorney, said they believe that the school board violated procedures for school closings with its 4-1 decision Tuesday night to close the school, which opened in 1902.

The lawsuit would also seek to block the closing of Thompson Elementary School in Barstow.

Jon Quass, a former co-chair of the committee, asked that residents who are considering accepting a buyout from PG&E, “rethink your position” and stay in town.

Buyouts contributed to the school board’s decision to close the school because of its falling enrollment, he said.

Enrollment at virtually every school in the Barstow Unified School District has plummeted in recent years, school officials have said.

About 25 children have left Hinkley because of the buyouts since late 2010, said Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman.

A man, who declined to give his name, passed out fliers about the prospect of opening a charter school on a site a few miles east of the current Hinkley school.

No one mentioned this possibility during the public meeting, which was held at the Hinkley school, as are many community meetings to discuss the community’s water pollution problems.

Mike Hayhurst, from the nearby Helendale School District, said that his district would be willing to send a bus to Hinkley, if parents from the community would want to send their children to the district’s charter school in the Silver Lakes community.

Barstow Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Malan said that the district will form a committee soon to look at what might be done with the Hinkley school.

The options include making it a magnet school, a charter school or selling it as surplus property.

In related news:

As a possible alternative to a newly developed whole household water filtration system, Sheryl Bilbrey, PG&E’s director of chromium remediation, said the company was looking at the possibility of bringing in a pipeline for Mojave River water or buying water for large tanks that would serve the community.

It was announced that the Hinkley Community Advisory Committee and Project Navigator, Ltd., a group of scientists who advise the committee, will be holding a community barbecue from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on March 16. There will be free food, music and games.

Although the event has been planned for some time, the timing worked well to help the community bond after learning its school is set for closure, said Raudel Sanchez, a chemical engineer who works for Project Navigator on Hinkley issues.

“I’ve heard a lot of talk about plumes and pipes, but unless we can save this school, the town is gone,” said Nathan Roberts, 32, who has two children attending Hinkley school, just as he and his parents did.

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