On July 17, 2013 the Lahontan Water Board approved the groundwater cleanup’s EIR. The EIR can be found here. The presentation delivered by the CAC’s IRP Manager is here. The IRP Manager will further discuss the content and implications of the EIR at forthcoming Community meetings.
Erin Brockovich is long gone, but there’s been no “happily ever after” for Hinkley. The town is on the verge of extinction as its battle over tainted water takes its toll.
Join us Monday to chat about what the future holds for this small desert community and its residents. Representatives from the town, PG&E and the Lahontan Water Quality Control Board will chat with reporter Jim Steinberg and editorial writer Jessica Keating beginning at noon.
Join the discussion here or send your comments and questions in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I walked away assuming everything was OK, and it wasn’t. I feel duped, and ashamed.”
Nearly two decades after Environmental Advocate Erin Brockovich aided Hinkley in a $333 million landmark settlement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and a feel-good, award-winning “Erin Brockovich” 2000 movie put the town’s plight into the spotlight, the future of the small Mojave Desert town is at stake as a toxic chromium-6 plume continues to plague Hinkley. Residents are leaving, and its only school closed. Those who remain are left weary in an abandoned town.
Hear some of what Brockovich and others have to say about the town of Hinkley 17 years after a landmark settlement. Then come to our website Friday to read more about Hinkley, its residents and the plume that never went away.
U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist to research natural levels of chromium 6
By Brooke Self – DesertDispatch.com, Staff Writer
HINKLEY • A new background study to determine the naturally occurring level of hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, found in the Hinkley valley has been commissioned by Pacific Gas and Electric and the regional water board overseeing the groundwater clean-up.
Dr. John Izbicki, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, will begin studying the groundwater conditions in Hinkley with the latest technology available, according to PG&E principal remediation specialist Danielle Starring.
Izbicki is expected to be an objective expert in the contamination case and has been approved by PG&E, the Lahontan Regional Water Board and local residents on the Community Advisory Committee, she said.
PG&E was responsible for contaminating the groundwater in Hinkley in the 1950s and 60s near the company’s compressor station on Community Boulevard. Industrial waste containing hexavalent chromium was discharged into unlined ponds near the facility.
Lahontan assistant executive officer, Lauri Kemper, said previously that the new background study is being funded by PG&E though the water board will oversee the contract with the U.S. Geological Survey.
“It’s going to take a couple of years,” Starring said. “It’s a long process; but the idea is to answer the most pressing questions first.”
Those questions encompass whether the origins of chromium 6 in certain areas of Hinkley were caused by PG&E’s contamination, unique changes to water chemistry, or are naturally occurring, she said. Because Hinkley is located among the Mojave Desert the terrain comprises diverse geological conditions, she said, which could also impact the level of chromium 6 found throughout the valley. Izbicki will research all of those possibilities using newer technology than what was available at the time of the original background study, she said.
The previous background study conducted in 2007 determined the average background level of chromium 6 in Hinkley to be between 0 and 1.2 ppb, Kemper said. PG&E has been ordered to clean up the plume area to a maximum level of 3.1 ppb because statistically the range could also naturally reach that level, she said. PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said no matter what the new background number is determined to be, the company will in the interim continue their clean-up efforts to the 3.1 ppb number. And reverting the groundwater of the miles-wide plume is expected to take another 30 to 40 years, he said.
Starring said part of Izbicki’s new research will be studying isotopes in the groundwater to determine the age of the water and its historical uses. In Hinkley’s past, dozens of acres in the area contained alfalfa farms owned by local residents. At least three dairy farms still operate in the community.
A recent investigative order issued by Lahontan also tasked the company to look into the causes of a possible western expansion of the plume. After data gathered from monitoring wells in the first quarter of 2013 was released the plume map was updated to add Hinkley School, the Hinkley Market and Hinkley Bible Church among properties located within a 1-mile radius of the plume. PG&E calls the new boundary to the west, the “western finger,” where a thin stretch of the plume map has been redrawn to introduce the one monitoring well that tested at 4.2 ppb of chromium 6. That well is directly west of a line of five fresh water injection pumps that are in place to contain the plume’s groundwater at the western boundary. Fresh water injections make up one-third of PG&E’s clean-up efforts.
“We feel we have the data to show plume containment and we’re committed to cleaning up our contamination,” Smith said.
Starring and Smith said that the science doesn’t support the plume’s westward migration. They say the remediation efforts in that area are directing the groundwater eastward toward their alfalfa fields. Although, the natural flow of groundwater in Hinkley is northwest toward Harper Lake, they said.
Kemper and the water board maintain that PG&E decreased the fresh water injection pumping significantly in that area during the fourth quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013, which would have caused the plume migration.
“The water board doesn’t agree with that conclusion and we are still monitoring the data,” Kemper said.
Alfalfa farming is also being used as a major part of the remediation work by PG&E. The alfalfa plants naturally convert chromium 6 to the nutrient chromium 3. The third part of the clean-up is located at the heart of the plume where the original contamination occurred and comprises ethanol injections. The ethanol injections are the most effective at combating very high levels of chromium, which has been tested as high as 500 ppb and 1,000 ppb in the central area of the plume.
The current California drinking water standard is 50 ppb for total chromium, which includes both chromium 6 and chromium 3, they said. A draft new state drinking water standard is expected to be issued toward the end of the summer and will specifically address chromium 6.
While the process of cleaning up the groundwater in Hinkley is long and complex, Starring said the company wishes to “get it right” and meaningfully study all of the possibilities in the area as well as comply with the water board’s orders to investigate the westward expansion.
The final environmental impact report, which will permit PG&E to greatly increase their remediation efforts in Hinkley, is scheduled for approval next week on July 17. The public meeting will be held at the Lenwood Hampton Inn at 7 p.m.
For more information regarding the groundwater clean-up and the water board’s orders visit www.waterboards.ca.gov.
Home furniture items are left outside an abandoned home in Hinkley on Saturday, March 16, 2013. In the last two years, residents have become aware that a toxic water plume continues to grow below their small town, some have moved out of Hinkley. (Rachel Luna/San Bernardino Sun)
Despite the polluted water in her beloved town, Reanna Banks has been a devoted Hinkley resident for most of her adult life. But time is taking a heavy toll on her devotion.
“I should have listened to my brain and not my heart,” Banks said of the decision to build a dream house on family land in Hinkley.
With the ragged red-stone Mount General range in the background, Banks, 33, talked about the quietness of the location, the nighttime view of bright stars and the distant lights of Barstow.
It’s here where her son, Aiden, 6, plays in the yard of her 10-acre parcel on a plateau overlooking the Hinkley Valley.
But now a groundwater plume of cancer-causing chromium-6 made famous in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich” has migrated underneath her property — and into her property’s water well.
And now, Banks’ feelings about Hinkley have changed.
Her son’s frequent bloody noses, her lupus and her husband’s stress in devoting every spare waking moment to studying aspects of the chromium pollution and representing the community at numerous meetings, has taken its toll. All these problems, in Reanna Banks’ view, point back to the water.
Officially, the Banks property isn’t in the plume. Its well testing did not detect chromium-6 several times. In late 2010, a well test picked up a trace amount of chromium-6 and its been there every time since. But so far, the levels have not met the criteria for her property to be located within the plume’s boundary. A house about a quarter mile away was recently identified as in the plume, and that means the Banks property falls within the one-mile buffer zone that flares out from the plume’s official boundary. Therefore, the family qualifies for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s bottled water program and has opted for the utility’s sophisticated household water filtration system, which should be operational by the end of August.
Reanna Banks, however, wants out — for her son, her own health and her husband’s.
No Hollywood ending
Trash and home furniture items are left out in a lot near an abandoned home in Hinkley on Saturday, March 16, 2013. In the last two years, residents have become aware that a toxic water plume continues to grow below their small town, some have moved out of Hinkley. (Rachel Luna / Staff Photographer)
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Residents weren’t supposed to see chromium-6 showing up in their wells again.
The Hollywood movie that earned Julia Roberts an Academy Award for her portrayal of Erin Brockovich, left many with the impression that everything would be OK in this unincorporated community of fewer than 2,000 people, 10 miles west of Barstow and two hours northeast of Los Angeles.
But 17 years after a settlement in which San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. awarded $333 million to slightly more than 600 residents, the most recent map of the plume’s boundary shows the known northern edge has nearly quadrupled from 1.75 miles north of the source to about 7 miles north of a PG&E natural gas compression station that opened in 1952. Back then, the utility company used chromium-6 in its giant cooling tanks to prevent rust and it would then dump the spent water into unlined ponds where the element eventually seeped into the groundwater.
And it’s growing — 2.53 feet per day, according to Lisa Dernbach, a geological engineer with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of nine regional water quality control boards in California, operating under the umbrella of the State Water Resources Control Board.
The plume’s growth has swallowed a major part of Hinkley, and now, some people — even Brockovich — say the entire town is threatened with extinction. Its residents are fleeing. Its only school closed last month, and its only retail outlet — a small market — is struggling as the number of customers dwindles.
For PG&E, water filtration devices, bottled water and buyouts of homes have been ways to deal with the plume’s effects in a time when there’s no playbook for such cleanup. But for others, the death of the town from its toxic water is inevitable.
And why should anyone care?
The very future of Hinkley, like towns across the nation dealing with toxic water, is threatened by pollution, Brockovich said.
“Hinkley will be a ghost town,” Brockovich said. “It will be another town lost in America due to pollution.”
A distant view of the Pacific Gas & Electric compressor station in Hinkley on Thursday, May 2, 2013. (Rachel Luna / Staff Photographer)
Brockovich left Hinkley in 1997 feeling justice had been done.
It was a story Hollywood played up.
Unemployed-single-mom-turned-legal-assistant almost single-handedly forces giant California power company to pay millions for years of polluting local water with a substance linked to cancer.
It was a “David and Goliath victory,” Brockovich said in a recent interview.
But Brockovich knows better today.
“I’m almost ashamed to say that after all we had been through with PG&E, I thought that PG&E would have addressed this (the cleanup),” Brockovich said. “I walked away assuming that everything was OK, and it wasn’t. I feel duped, ashamed and really sad for the people of Hinkley.”
Even Roberta Walker, 59, who is Reanna Banks’ mother, and the resident who back in the 1990s alerted Brockovich to the plume, is dismayed.
She and her husband bought 10 acres far away from the plume and she was certain that after the legal settlement — and the movie — PG&E would contain it.
“I should have known better,” she said.
Many feel that way, including lifelong Hinkley resident Carmela Spasojevich.
It was Carmela Spasojevich — then Carmela Gonzalez — who in 2010 sounded the alarm that the chromium-6 plume had spread dramatically.
And it all started, she said, because her bay quarter horse, Katie, was drinking very little water.
One day, Spasojevich noticed that the horse looked drawn-in, and by pinching her skin, she determined Katie was dehydrated.
Substituting bottled water for well water, Katie, who was old for a horse, resumed drinking normally.
“I knew one thing for sure: My water had changed. That’s when I started doing some digging,” she said.
She started calling neighbors and looked up files at the Lahontan Water Quality Control Board website, which oversees the Hinkley cleanup.
Records, submitted to the water agency by PG&E, showed the plume of contaminated water had expanded.
Chromium-6 levels of some wells were “going off the chart,” she said.
None of the readings exceeded the state’s current safe water drinking standard — 50 parts per billion of total chromium, which includes chromium-6, a carcinogen, and chromium-3, which in trace amounts is essential for human life.
Because the levels were below current state guidelines, there is no requirement that residents be notified. In fact, there is no Hinkley resident drawing water from a well known to exceed the current state standard.
But the prospect of chromium-6 showing up in more residents’ wells was alarming in a town already sensitive to water issues.
The plume of highly soluble chromium-6 glides easily with the groundwater beneath Hinkley. And that path is generally north at an average rate of 2.53 feet per day, although it can be pulled to the east or west by heavy pumping for agricultural uses, Dernbach said. Agricultural pumping can also pull the plume more rapidly northward, she said.
Using that number, Dernbach estimates that the chromium plume is actually more than seven miles long. One of the Lahontan water board’s many directives to PG&E is to more accurately define the plume boundaries. But PG&E has been hampered in its quest to sink more wells north of the plume because the area is habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and the Mojave ground squirrel.
In its quest to do that, PG&E already draws water for testing from more than 600 sampling points.
Had the Hinkley compressor station been located somewhere, like Oregon or Ohio, where the yearly rainfall supports rich plant life, the soil would be packed with microbes, which would naturally convert chromium-6 to its benign relative, chromium-3, scientists say.
One of PG&E’s remediation efforts involve planting fields of grasses or alfalfa over portions of the plume and irrigating those fields with the contaminated water from below. Conversion of chromium-6 to chromium-3 occurs quickly in the root zone.
Using the water board’s records, Spasojevich revealed at a water board meeting that a groundwater monitoring well little more than a mile north of a compressor station had registered stunning increases in the level of chromium-6, a compound linked to cancers of the nose, lungs, stomach and other organs. She found the levels for total chromium had gone from 1.9 ppb in 2007 to 18.8 ppb in 2010, a huge increase, but still well below the state standard of 50 ppb.
Officials stressed caution.
Results of one water sampling don’t determine a trend, said Lauri Kemper, the Lahontan water agency’s assistant executive officer.
But by early 2010, additional sampling well water analyses confirmed that the initial readings were not a fluke — the plume was heading north.
The news of a growing plume set off alarm bells among many residents.
“This is crazy,” Roberta Walker recalled thinking after viewing Spasojevich’s information. “We exposed them in 1993. They (PG&E) promised everyone they would contain it… . I thought they would contain it, like a fence.”
And many once again looked at the water as a source of health problems, a dwindling population and a shaky future for the town.
No Playbook For Containment
Hinkley student Brianna Varga cries as she says her final goodbye to a friend on the final day of school at Hinkley School in Hinkley, Calif. on Thursday, June 6, 2013. Hinkley School closed its doors for good at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. (Rachel Luna / Staff Photographer)
PG&E says that a massive, multimillion-dollar effort has been undertaken to contain the spread and keep people’s drinking water safe. That effort involves technology, water filtration and buyouts.
The company has always acknowledged that part of the plume was its doing, but there’s a caveat: The company asserts that naturally occurring chromium-6 was in the Hinkley groundwater water before its compressor station was built six decades ago.
“There is no playbook on how to do this,” said Sheryl Bilbrey, PG&E’s director of chromium remediation.
Hinkley’s water problems date back to the use of chromium-6 to protect the metal and kill algae in cooling towers at that station. The power company would periodically dump the contents into an unlined pond, a not uncommon practice in that era before the cancer-causing properties of chromium-6 were known.
Scientists from around the world have visited the remediation sites, where two 10,000-gallon tanks inject ethanol into the worst part of the plume, setting up a chemical reaction that turns chromium-6 into the less dangerous chromium-3, said Kevin Sullivan, the PG&E environmental engineer in charge of the Hinkley cleanup.
Little more than a mile north of the plant, PG&E has set up a half-mile wide barrier, with multiple ethanol injection points, to box in the worst part of the plume, Sullivan said.
The strategy is working, Sullivan said, because recent maps of the plume show that it has been split in two, a southern part and a larger part plume in the north — with much lower concentrations of chromium 6.
Sullivan said that he believes much of the northern plume is naturally occurring, thus not caused by PG&E’s operations.
“The travesty was that a $333 million lawsuit and an Oscar-winning movie did not bring enough attention to this,” Spasojevich said. “What makes the situation that much more shocking is that California has a reputation for being one of the most highly regulated states in the nation, yet it is allowing this to happen.”
Local officials agree.
“What happened in Hinkley is nothing less than horrific,” said First District San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood. “Have we learned from what happened to Hinkley? I certainly think we have and I think the state has addressed any possibility of a repeat.”
“This is an ongoing issue that spans 40 years already and is still developing,” said 33rd District Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. “The facts on the ground are that this is a serious issue that has changed many residents’ lives forever because of human error.”
Will Hinkley become a ghost town, as Brockovich recently predicted?
PG&E’s Jeff Smith isn’t so sure.
Smith, the utility’s spokesman, would not respond to questions about whether Hinkley would become extinct or the extent to which the company would be responsible for such a fate.
“It is not appropriate for me to speculate on what the town will look like in the future,” he said.
Ultimately, it’s up to residents, he said.
“Certainly the dynamics of Hinkley are changing because of the options they (residents) are taking. Our objective has never been to make choices for folks,” Smith said.
“There are those who are going to remain in the community, and we will be part of the community for many years to come, and we want to be a good neighbor and partner for those who remain.”
Aiden Banks, 6, plays in the yard of his family’s 10-acre land parcel in Hinkley on Thursday, March 7, 2013. Aiden is a third generation Hinkley resident. Seventeen years after Erin Brockovich and the movie she inspired was released, the future of the small High Desert town of Hinkley is at stake. (Rachel Luna / Staff Photographer)
Seventeen years after a groundbreaking settlement that left some of this town’s residents with millions from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the Hinkley community is on the verge of disappearing.
The town’s residents are rapidly leaving, its only school closed last month and an engineering expert hired to advise the community worries that residents aren’t asking the right questions to preserve the town they love.
The state water agency overseeing the complex cleanup of Hinkley’s toxic water plume is about to consider approval of an environmental review of PG&E’s proposed cleanup methodologies that, among other things, allows for pilot technology to expand into new areas of the plume.
For some residents, it seems like they’re part of some big science project they can’t control.
Approval of that environmental review would mean “a license to poison Hinkley,” said Bobby Morris, who believes large quantities of manganese that turned the water in his backyard pool black late last year is related to PG&E’s injection of ethanol in the worst part of the plume.
“That needs to be stopped right now,” said Morris, who recently sold his home to PG&E and relocated with his wife to Pahrump, Nev.
The toxic plume beneath Hinkley is the legacy of 12 years of operations, from 1952 to 1964, when chromium-6, a known carcinogen, at PG&E’s natural gas compressor station was dumped from giant cooling towers into unlined ponds. From there it percolated into the groundwater and into residents’ wells in a community where there is no central water system.
For years, Hinkley residents have expected PG&E to contain the plume made famous in the award-winning 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich.”
But as more monitoring wells are sunk — there are now about 500 — the known boundary of the plume becomes ever larger.
If the 1,000-page EIR is approved, PG&E will be able to expand several specific cleanup options to appropriate points along a plume that is more than two miles wide and seven miles long.
Two mailboxes are posted in vacant desert land in Hinkley on Saturday, March 16, 2013. In the last two years, residents have become aware that a toxic water plume continues to grow below their small town, some residents have moved away from Hinkley. (Rachel Luna / Staff Photographer)
A ‘big step’
For Hinkley, “the environmental impact report is a big step,” said Kevin Sullivan, the PG&E environmental engineer in charge of the Hinkley groundwater cleanup.
Approve it — which is expected and which the board’s staff recommends — and PG&E’s massive cleanup strategies will be validated and later expanded.
That has made the EIR a repository for the pros and cons of PG&E’s cleanup, which could last up to 40 years and add millions to the $800 million the utility company has already spent to settle lawsuits, buy properties, provide sophisticated — and expensive — in-house water purification systems and continue pursuing remediation efforts.
Some residents have been worried for more than a year that one cleanup method, designed to attack the highest concentrations of chromium-6 by injecting ethanol into the ground, is releasing arsenic and manganese, which they fear might contaminate local water wells.
Officials say concerns about the environmental effects and the cleanup have been addressed in the final draft, including the handling of byproducts of arsenic and manganese, which the EIR study determined are quickly reabsorbed into the soil.
The Community Advisory Committee, a group of Hinkley residents who represent the community in meetings with PG&E and the water board, will ask the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board members not to approve the EIR, said Lester White, chairman of the group.
“We believe that ethanol injection should never be used in a community because of the byproducts it produces,” White said.
First grade teacher Nicole Williams pours bottled water on her students at the conclusion of a fun water activity on the final day of school at Hinkley School in Hinkley, Calif. on Thursday, June 6, 2013. Hinkley School is closing for good at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. (Rachel Luna / Staff Photographer)
Like the town itself, the number of people serving on the CAC is dwindling.
In the past several months, six members — more than half the board — have resigned. Many quit because they left town. Larry Notario, principal of the Hinkley school, quit when the school closed.
On top of losing their award-winning school, residents were hit with another blow when their reappraisal notices arrived from the San Bernardino County Assessor’s Office. Many learned that the equity in their homes had been wiped out.
“The school (closing) was horrible. This is the final nail in the coffin (for the community),” said Daron Banks, 45, who said he saw $300,000 in equity disappear from his home after reading the notice from the county. “PG&E destroyed the water here and now they’ve destroyed the value of our property.”
Blaming PG&E might not always be the best strategy, said Ian Webster, the chemical engineer whose Brea-based Project Navigator Ltd. was hired by PG&E to be scientific advisers to the Hinkley community. Webster, a Scottish-born chemical engineer with a doctorate from MIT, said he agrees with 98 percent of PG&E’s remediation strategy for Hinkley.
But the town’s future will be troubled if leaders continue fighting battles that are long over.
“This methodology will be the real horsepower of the remediation,” he said. But objecting to it now “is a little bit too late down the river. The remedy has been selected.”
Scientist Ian Webster gives the latest updates to residents about the chromium-6 groundwater plume, and PG&E’s remediation strategies during a Community Advisory Committee meeting in the Hinkley School auditorium in Hinkley on Thursday, June 27, 2013. Webster is the founder and president of Project Navigator, Ltd., and is the scientific advisor for the Hinkley community. (Rachel Luna / Staff Photographer)
Time to leave?
Even before these latest blows, residents said they felt it was time to leave. They are tired of continually having their wells tested and of wondering when they or their families might get sick from years of exposure to chromium-6.
Since late 2010, PG&E has extended buyout offers to the owners of 279 properties in Hinkley. Of those, 174 have been accepted, 130 homes were purchased and 44 are in the process of closing, said Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman.
In certain sections of this unincorporated community, whole streets have dwindled to one or two residents.
Over the past five years, the U.S. Postal Service has reduced the number of home deliveries by about 200 to 447, said Eva M. Jackson, a USPS spokeswoman.
“It’s a psychological thing,” he said. And soon they find themselves not wanting to live there either.
Billy Hernandez, an active member of the Community Advisory Committee, moved to Hinkley to live near longtime friends. He built a $600,000 house.
Now all his neighbors are gone, the plume has moved underneath his property and because his house is in Hinkley, he can’t even get a $20,000 home equity loan for it, even though he owns the house outright, he said.
Hernandez and his wife, Motiva, hope PG&E will buy them out soon.
“We want to get out of Hinkley and start a new path in our lives,” he said.