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Chromium-6 in Tap Water: Why the ‘Erin Brockovich’ Chemical Is Dangerous

By Kacey Deamer

Nearly 200 million Americans across all 50 states have been exposed through their tap water to higher-than-recommended levels of chromium-6, a cancer-causing chemical, according to a new report. Chromium-6 was made famous in the 2000 biographical film “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts as the titular activist. But what is it, and why is it a concern?

An odorless and tasteless metallic element, chromium occurs naturally in the environment and can be found in things like rocks, plants and soil. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the two most common forms of chromium found in water are trivalent chromium (chromium-3) and hexavalent chromium (chromium-6).

A national report released Tuesday (Sept. 20) found unsafe levels of chromium-6 or hexavalent chromium — known to cause cancer in animals and humans — in tap water across the country. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an independent advocacy group, analyzed data collected by the EPA for a nationwide test of chromium-6 contamination in drinking water. EWG’s report found that if left untreated, chromium-6 in tap water will cause more than 12,000 new cases of cancer.

Chromium-3 is an essential human dietary nutrient and can be found in many vegetables, fruits, meats, grains and yeast. It is known to enhance insulin, as well as help metabolize carbohydrates, fats and proteins, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Chromium-6, however, is a toxic form of the mineral. While this form does occur naturally in the environment, from the erosion of chromium deposits, chromium-6 can also be produced by industrial processes. The EPA has reported instances of chromium-6 being released into the environment from industrial pollution — leakage, poor storage or inadequate industrial waste disposal practices.

Studies of chromium-6 have established that breathing the particles can cause lung cancer. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets strict limits for levels of airborne chromium-6 in the workplace. The chemical has also been connected to liver damage, reproductive problems and developmental harm, according to the EWG, and presents greater risks to infants and children, people who take antacids, and people with poorly functioning livers.

A 2008 study by the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, found that chromium-6 in drinking water caused cancer in laboratory rats and mice.

That study and other research led scientists at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to conclude that chromium-6 can cause cancer in people. The office recommended a public health goal of 0.02 parts per billion in tap water to reduce risk (one part per billion is about equivalent to a single drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool). In 2014, California did adopt a legal limit to chromium-6— though, at 10 parts per billion, it was much higher than the public health goal. It is the only enforceable drinking water standard for chromium-6 at the state or federal level.

Currently, the EPA limits the total chromium— not exclusively chromium-6 — that can be present in drinking water. Chromium-6 and chromium-3 are covered under the same standard because “these forms of chromium can convert back and forth in water and in the human body, depending on environmental conditions,” the agency said.

The EPA’s drinking water limit for total chromium is 100 parts per billion, or 5,000 times California’s public health goal and 10 times the state’s legal limit.

According to the new EWG report, in almost 90 percent of water systems sampled,chromium-6 was found at an average level exceeding California’s nonbinding recommended public health goal.

“Cleaning up water supplies contaminated with chromium-6 will not be cheap,” the EWG report concluded. “But the answer to high costs is not allowing exposures at unsafe levels while pretending water is safe. And the fact that some unknown level of chromium-6 contamination comes from natural sources does not negate Americans’ need to be protected from a known carcinogen.”


Water regulators approve comprehensive cleanup for Hinkley plume

By Jim Steinberg, The Sun

BARSTOW >> Almost 28 years since state regulators learned there was a chromium-6 problem in Hinkley, officials from the same agency approved a comprehensive cleanup order for the world’s largest known plume of this cancer-causing chemical.

The vote late Wednesday night was unanimous by the six governor-appointed members of the Lahontan Regional Water Control Board for an order that will, in the words of a scientific consultant for the Hinkley community, “govern the cleanup for the next 20 years.”

More important than the cleanup itself, the order should serve as a starting point for the rebuilding of the Hinkley community, said Amy Horne, a longtime board member.

In the years since the plume was discovered, Hinkley’s population has dwindled from 8,000 to about 1,000, Horne said in an impassioned speech after the vote.

She urged the members of the Hinkley community that still remained to allow Pacific Gas & Electric Co. “to take off the black hat.”

The order requires PG&E to further define the plume, monitor it and knock down chromium-6 concentrations, especially in the core area near its Hinkley natural gas compression station.

From 1952 until 1964, San Francisco-based PG&E discharged untreated chromium-6 from cooling towers in its Hinkley station into unlined ponds, a common practice during that era, before the cancer-causing properties of chromium-6 were fully understood.

From the ponds, chromium-6 percolated into the ground.

Hinkley’s water contamination problems were thrust globally into public view in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich” starring Julia Roberts.

The order includes provisions for PG&E to:

  • Reach and maintain 50 parts per billion chromium-6 in 90 percent of the wells (above 50 ppb at the time of the order) by the first quarter 2025.
  • Reach and maintain 10 ppb in 80 percent of all wells between 10 ppb and 50 ppb by Dec. 31, 2032.

No one living in the Hinkley area is believed to be drinking well water exceeding the state standard, which is 10 ppb, officials say.

However, wells near the compressor station have readings as high as 4,100 ppb.

No member of the Hinkley community attending the Wednesday night meeting in Barstow spoke in favor of the cleanup and abatement order.

Several asked the board to delay its decision so that numerous changes in the order could be evaluated. Others did not support changes in plume mapping procedures and water replacement requirements placed on PG&E should the cleanup in some way bring back chromium-6 at higher levels in drinking water.

Members of the Lahontan agency’s prosecution staff, whose members have been working on the Hinkley problem for years, also objected to some of the changes in plume mapping procedures.

The state learned of the Hinkley chromium-6 plume on Dec. 7, 1987, Horne said.

In 2013, Hinkley’s only school closed, and this summer Hinkley lost its only business, a convenience market and gas station.

Carrmela Spasojevich, a former Hinkley resident and current landowner, said, in a letter to the water agency, she has been “amazed’ at how the original cleanup and abatement order drafted by the Lahontan’s prosecution team in January has had “ridiculous changes and illogical requirements” since the document has been in the hands of an advisory team, created to craft the final document.

State water agency officials say that a group detached from the day-to-day monitoring of PG&E’s Hinkley cleanup was needed to create an unbiased document and foster separation of functions within the agency, which judges look upon favorably should the cleanup order be challenged in court.

Spasojevich and other Hinkley residents objected to the new mapping criteria that called for PG&E and its consultants to use “best professional judgment” in maping the plume boundaries.

In 2010, Spasojevich, now a Virginia resident, told the Lahontan agency’s board that PG&E’s plume had migrated into the lower aquifer for the first time.

The original cleanup order written by the prosecution team gave PG&E specific dates for cleaning up the lower aquifer. The order approved Wednesday has no time frame.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Spasojevich said she is considering an appeal of the board action Wednesday.


Hinkley Water Cleanup Order may affect plume map

Water board teams square off, debate changes

Hinkley resident Daron Banks makes a comment during the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting Wednesday at the Holiday Inn in Lenwood. Banks said whatever is done should be about right and wrong, not dollars and cents. Mike Lamb, Desert Disaptch

By Mike Lamb

Staff Writer

BARSTOW — A proposal to change the way the Chromium 6 plume boundaries for Hinkley are defined in a new cleanup and abatement order for Pacific Gas and Electric drew concern and was debated Wednesday.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board held its September meeting at the Holiday Inn in Lenwood to discuss the draft of the cleanup and abatement order that is scheduled to be finalized by November.

“I believe there is more certainty using this interpretation method … rather than connecting dots,” a water board advisory team member told the board. Doug Smith is a senior engineering geologist.

“Because the subsurface is something that cannot be seen, we have to rely on geologists, civil engineers, hydrologists to poke holes. The subsurface is very diverse and in the Hinkley area there has been thousands and thousands of years of sentiment.

“We cannot ever see that from the surface. So what geologists have to do, we have to poke holes,” he said. “We have to make best professional professional judgments where things are.”

The water board prosecution team pointed to two maps on the wall in warning how different the boundaries could look. One map was from 2014 and another was constructed by a PG&E contractor using criteria from the draft order, according to the prosecution team. The plume boundaries were a lot different, with the plume smaller in the newer map.

The proposed reporting requirements for PG&E call for mapping to be consistent with the industry standard of best professional judgment by a California licensed professional geologist or professional engineer.

Previous orders which were issued prior to the State of California setting the Chromium 6 drinking water standard at 10 ppb required PG&E to define the extent of chromium in the upper aquifer to maximum background levels. Monitoring wells were not to exceed one-quarter mile distance from other monitoring wells in accessible areas.

Board member Peter Pumphrey, from Bishop, also questioned the change.

“Why is there not simply value in generating a map that shows all the data points, and then allow someone to say on the map, note we don’t believe it’s in our best professional judgment that this area is the responsibility or is linked to the discharge?,” Prumphrey asked.

Assistant Executive Officer Lauri Kemper, who is on the prosecution team, said that is the current procedure. She said PG&E is allowed to use insets on the map to disagree with certain boundaries.

“We would argue that is something we should continue,” she said. “It seems premature to make this kind of change now.”

PG&E’s director of remediation then told the board he wanted to make sure that the possible consequences of the maps are considered.

“We have an obligation to try to convey a richness of information so people can make intelligent decisions,” Kevin Sullivan said. “My concern is that we are simply relying on a number that is 3.1 (ppb), which is a number that is not certain and being reviewed by the USGS (United States Geological Survey). It depicts a very black and white depiction of where someone is in a perceived plume or out of the perceived plume.”

Hinkey resident Daron Banks argued that it doesn’t matter if there are numbers below 3.1 (ppb). He said PG&E agreed to clean the Chromium 6 down to zero. “I appreciate Kevin’s stance, but it’s about dollars and cents and not about right and wrong,” Banks said. “It’s about keeping PG&E’s PR. We are about people. The community has completely changed and will never be back to the way it was four, five years ago. We won’t get our stores back. At least not the way it was before.”

Water board staff will continue to accept comments until Sept. 30. The Water Board plans to consider adoption of a final cleanup and abatement order at its Nov. 4-5 board meeting, which also will be held in Barstow.

Mike Lamb can be reached at 760-957-0613 or You can also follow him on Twitter @mlambdispatch.


CAC Newsletter Volume 1 Number 3

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15 years after ‘Erin Brockovich,’ town still fearful of polluted water


Roberta Walker was a plaintiff in the original suit against Pacific Gas (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Maneuvering his pickup through this Mojave Desert town, resident Daron Banks pointed at empty lot after empty lot.

“Last time I was here there was a home right here. There was a home here, there was a home here,” he said, making his way down the bumpy road in the place made famous by the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.”

Fifteen years after the film showed triumphant residents winning a $333-million settlement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for contaminating its water — and nearly 20 years after the settlement itself — Hinkley is emptying out, and those who stay still struggle to find resolution.

For residents, questions remain about the safety of the water, just how much contamination PG&E caused and how to fix it.

This year, a final cleanup plan is moving toward approval. Last month, a long-awaited, five-year study to determine how much contamination PG&E may be responsible for finally got underway.

Daron Banks stands on the empty road that leads to his home in Hinkley, Calif. Nearly two decades after the town settled with Pacific Gas (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“At some point in the next few years we’re going to get some closure,” Banks said.

But today there’s little left in Hinkley beyond some scattered homes and acres of alfalfa and other grasses, planted to help clean the contamination.

“You had a great community out here and now it’s gone,” said resident Roger Killian.

Hinkley was a small farming community in the 1990s when residents learned that groundwater was polluted with chromium 6, a cancer-causing heavy metal. It had seeped into the water after being dumped into unlined ponds at the utility company’s compressor station in the 1950s and ’60s.

Since then, hundreds of residents have left. Property values dropped because of the stigma surrounding the town, and PG&E launched a buyout program.

Roberta Walker, a plaintiff in the original lawsuit and Banks’ mother-in-law, said that at the time of the settlement, residents like her believed the plume of contamination was limited to a well-defined area around the compressor station.

But in 2009, PG&E “let it get away from them and it started migrating toward other properties,” said Lisa Dernbach, a senior engineering geologist specialist with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency overseeing the cleanup.

That resulted in a $3.6-million fine against the company in 2012, she said.

Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman, said what looked like growth of the plume was actually the result of additional testing in areas that had previously gone unexamined. Dernbach said the migration happened after the utility changed pumping in some extraction wells.

More recently, the contamination plume appears to have shrunk. Kevin Sullivan, director of chromium remediation for PG&E, said a system installed in 2007 to treat the contamination with injections of ethanol has reduced the chromium by 40%.

Starting in 2010, PG&E offered to either provide clean water or buy properties of residents whose wells tested positive for chromium.

Smith said that when the program was announced, there was a high level of anxiety in the community and many residents wanted to sell their properties rather than take the water. The company, he said, wants to see Hinkley thrive.

“I think sometimes it’s misconstrued that PG&E wanted to come in and purchase a tremendous amount of land in Hinkley and that was just not the original intent,” he said.

Between 2010 and October 2014, when the program was formally discontinued, PG&E purchased about 300 properties, he said.

With residents leaving, the school could no longer be sustained. It shut down two years ago.

The owner of the property that houses the town’s post office and only market recently approached PG&E asking to sell and the utility agreed to buy, Smith said. The post office closed last month and the market will soon follow, an employee said.

As residents leave, the cleanup has progressed and technologies have improved. About 250 acres of alfalfa and other grasses now dot the town where some properties once stood and are used to help convert chromium 6 into the micronutrient chromium 3.

But despite the progress, many residents still worry about how much chromium 6 will remain in the water. PG&E is required to clean up to the levels at which chromium 6 naturally occurs in the groundwater — a number known as the background level.

A study commissioned by PG&E a few years ago said chromium 6 naturally occurred in Hinkley groundwater at levels of 3.1 parts per billion.

“Anything above 3.1 provided a lot of anxiety to the people in Hinkley,” said Dernbach, of the water control board.

Last year, the state set a safe drinking water standard of 10 parts per billion.

Although levels of chromium 6 nearest to the compressor station — where no residents remain — exceed that by large numbers, PG&E’s testing in domestic wells elsewhere in the community shows chromium 6 levels below 10 parts per billion, most often between 0 and 5, Sullivan said.

Smith, the PG&E spokesman, said the state-designated level has helped ease some residents’ concerns.

But others say they are disturbed that chromium 6 is showing up in their wells at all. Some say neighbors and family members have suffered ailments they believe were caused by the contamination, leading them to believe that even low chromium levels are dangerous.

The safe drinking water standard adopted by the state — which is hundreds of times greater than a nonenforceable public health goal set by the state Environmental Protection Agency — has been criticized as too high by some environmental groups.

For years, residents questioned whether the study commissioned by PG&E putting the background level at 3.1 parts per billion was even accurate.

Banks solicited help from John Izbicki, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist who has studied naturally occurring chromium 6 in the Mojave Desert. With pressure from residents, PG&E acknowledged that its earlier study was lacking. It is paying for a five-year study led by Izbicki that is expected to conclusively determine the background level.

At a community meeting this month, fewer than a dozen residents gathered in the Hinkley Community Center to hear Izbicki describe his upcoming study.

Izbicki said water samples would be sent to Germany, Nevada, Virginia, Northern California and other places for testing. Some of it would be handled in the same USGS labs that do testing for NASA.

When he was done, the meeting’s facilitator asked longtime resident McHenry Cooke, 81, if he would “trust the data.”

“I haven’t reviewed it all,” he said skeptically.

As the meeting wrapped up, John Turner, who volunteers to keep the community center open, said he felt optimistic about the town’s future. For years, community meetings have been filled with negativity, he said, but this one was productive.

He hopes PG&E will play a role in helping to rebuild the community so residents can move forward.

“It’s time,” he said.


Pioneering water study in Hinkley to determine contamination sources

By Jim Steinberg, The Sun

HINKLEY >> Starting in March, scientists are expected to begin drawing the first groundwater samples that will help resolve a long-standing question here: how much of this community’s below-ground contamination is the result of nature and how much is the result of man-made actions?


Hinkley water cleanup proposal issued by state regulators

By Jim Steinberg, The Sun

HINKLEY >> State regulators have released a draft order for the partial cleanup of the world’s largest contamination site for cancer-causing chromium-6. (more…)

Hinkley water project firm gets award


SACRAMENTO — ARCADIS U.S. Inc. was honored for its work on the Hinkley Whole-House Replacement Water Program by the American Council of Engineering Companies of California. (more…)

Barstow students research Hinkley

Photo credit: Desert Dispatch. Barstow Unified School District Assistant Superintendent James Davis talks to students about their research project during the public forum inside the Don Bilsborough Gym on Dec. 5. The students researched the groundwater contamination in Hinkley.

PNL staff participated in a public research forum on December 5, 2014 at Barstow High School’s Don Bilsborough Gym. The students displayed posters describing their research, findings, and opinions regarding Hinkley’s groundwater conditions and the PG&E remediation program.


PG&E gets OK to use bioreactor

By MIKE LAMB | Desert Dispatch

HINKLEY — Pacific Gas   Electric has received approval for a pilot test that will use a bioreactor for converting hexavalent chromium in Hinkley groundwater to solid trivalent chromium. (more…)