By: Margaret DeAngelis
Recent storms in Southern California have brought significant rainfall and caused the Mojave River to flow once again through Hinkley for a few days in mid February 2019. (more…)
By: JIM STEINBERG | California Water News Daily
HINKLEY >> Some residential wells in the unincorporated community of Hinkley have levels of arsenic many times greater than the state safe drinking water standard, U.S Geological Survey study has found.
One residenital well was shown to have an arsenic reading of 510 parts per billion, more than 50 times the state drinking water limit of 10 parts per billion, said John Izbicki, a USGS scientist in charge of a comprehensive study of Hinkley’s groundwater.
The survey of wells for arsenic and uranium was incidential to the main focus of the $5.6 million, five-year study to determine how much of the world’s largest chromium-6 plume formed naturally and how much is how much is the result of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. operations in the area.
Hinkley’s plume of cancer-causing chromium-6 was made famous in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich”.
The arsenic and uranium research was tacked onto the study because Hinkley residents were concerned about these elements in their water, Izbicki said.
All residents whose wells showed contaminate levels exceeding the safe drinking water standard were notified, Izbicki said.
The findings were published late last month in a report describing progress of the study from January 2015 and May 2017.
Hinkley is located about 10 miles west of Barstow.
No conclusions about PG&E’s role in Hinkley’s groundwater were included in this interim report which primarily described what will be the methodology for the completed study.
The final report is expected to be ready for review, in March 2019, by scientists within the USGS, scientists outside the USGS, a working group of PG&E and its consultants, members of the Hinkley community and the community’ s scientific advisor, Project Navigator, Izbicki said.
I could be well over a year before that review is complete and the full report becomes public, Izbicki said, in a recent interview.
One sampling well showed the arsenic level to be 910 parts per billion. “That’s a personal best for me,” said Izbicki, who has studied groundwater in California’s Mojave desert for decades.
The sampling well was one drilled for the study, and has never been used to provide drinking water.
Several residential wells had levels of uranium exceeding the safe drinking water standard, but not to the magniturde of arsenic, Izbicki said.
In the 1950s, PG&E used chromium-6 to kill microbes and provide corrosion protection for its massive cooling towers at a natural gas pumping station in Hinkley. Those towers were drained into unlined ponds, allowing chromium-6 to percolate into the groundwater during a time when the cancer-causing properties of the chemical were not fully known.
Arsenic and uranium can be found in wells throughout the state. The presence of both aresenic and uranium in the groundwater of the Hinkley Valley is not related to PG&E’s operations, Izbicki said.
By: MICHAEL CERVIN | Planet Experts
Perhaps Julia Roberts could be forgiven when she won the Academy Award for her performance in the Oscar-wining movie Erin Brockovich and forgot to thank the real Erin Brockovich. But it is telling that she never once mentioned the residents of Hinkley, California, a nothing-much-of-a-town located in the Mojave Desert off State Highway 58. The chemical chromium-6 was found in their water supply and many of the residents had suffered serious medical conditions for decades. But now the pollution is waning and the valley is slowly on the mend.
A Brief History
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) built a facility called the Hinkley Compressor Station in Hinkley, part of a natural gas pipeline which connected to the San Francisco Bay Area. Between 1952 and 1966 PG&E used hexavalent chromium, more commonly referred to as chromium-6 or chrom-6, to fight corrosion for the working parts of their facility. There’s nothing nefarious about that. In fact, it’s been common for industrial plants to do this for a long time.
Water dissolved the chrom-6 off the working pipes and that toxic wastewater was discharged directly into unlined ponds at the site used to hold the bad water in place. Some of the contaminated wastewater, however, percolated into the groundwater underneath Hinkley, affecting an area approximately two miles long and nearly a mile wide. The contamination levels were 10 times greater than the maximum amount allowed by law at the time.
A few notes on chromium-6:
With tainted groundwater, the families that bathed in, drank and cooked with their municipal water became sick. A lawsuit was filed and the case was eventually settled in 1996 for $333 million – a milestone settlement at that time. PG&E in the arbitration settlement with the residents of Hinkley admitted no wrongdoing, though they admit it now, decades later.
There’s an uneasy relationship between the remaining residents of Hinkley and PG&E. (Photo: Michael Cervin / Planet Experts)
In June 2012 a federal judge ordered that PG&E supply in-home water filtration systems and/or new wells to be drilled for the residents of Hinkley. But the court also ordered that PG&E clean up the mess, meaning the toxic plume that permeated the Hinkley Valley. Erin Brockovich helped shine a light on the situation, but what followed was also a story, one that gets little attention.
It’s one thing to watch a two-hour movie about a complex subject and think you know everything; it’s another to comprehend water contamination and find out exactly how you clean up a massive plume of toxic material. Most importantly, it’s crucial to get the facts straight. I made an appointment to meet with Jeff Smith, PG&E Spokesman, and Jeff McCarthy, Hinkley Site Manager, for a tour of the cleanup facilities. The polluted area is no longer two miles long and a mile wide — now it is assumed to be seven miles long and three miles wide.
Prior to my meeting with PG&E, I drove through this desolate town to get a feel for how much damage has been done. In early 2012, Hinkley’s population stood at 1,900. Today it is about 1,000 souls. Hinkley was never a city per se, but more an aggregate collection of farmlands, desert lovers and people who craved the isolation of a small community. Yes, there was a school, fire department, community center, gas station and market, and a few roadside restaurants, most of which are all gone. But it was never a city in the sense of what we think cities should be – it was an outlier.
With tainted groundwater, people left Hinkley in droves. (Photo: Michael Cervin / Planet Experts)
A brief drive through the paved and unpaved streets is like driving onto the film set of some apocalyptic movie. Houses are fenced off, some in partial to near total disrepair, some abandoned, some tagged and some being razed as part of PG&E’s plan to buy back homes and then bulldoze them. As I drove down Mulberry Avenue, it was a complete paradox. On one side of the street, all the houses were gone. I counted 13 mailboxes where homes once stood and families once lived, a slow depressing parade of empty addresses. The other side of the street was still inhabited – it is a weird and unsettling street. There are still signs of life in Hinkley of course: shiny cars parked in driveways, green lawns and front yards replete with plant life, children’s toys fading under the relentless desert sun. Perhaps in an ironic sign of hope, a bright yellow boat gleams in someone’s front yard.
PG&E has spent more than $700 million thus far cleaning up the toxic mess, but what does that look like exactly? To begin with, it’s crucial to understand that hexavalent chromium, arsenic, uranium, polonium-210 and many other radioactive, toxic and otherwise harmful materials reside under our feet, occurring naturally as part of a soil degradation chain. The idea that chrom-6 in the groundwater is solely PG&E’s doing is wrong; it existed long before PG&E ever came to Hinkley. That it is at such high levels is, admittedly, PG&E’s doing.
The unlined ponds near the compressor station were just that: graded sections of earth where toxic waste was dumped. Believe it or not, this was standard practice at the time. It seems stunningly myopic to us now, but the military, industry and other businesses routinely dumped chemicals into the ground. I understand that in our day and age we want to blame someone for this. Frankly, so do I. But it was conventional wisdom of that era, just like smoking was considered good for you in the 1950s.
Bear in mind that EPA was only formed in 1970. Prior to that there was pretty much a Wild West mentality – anything goes as long as no one knows about it and dumping hazardous material into the earth, dry river beds or any out-of-the-way piece of land simply was not considered a risk to human health because many of these dumping areas were not typically near large population centers. Shortsighted? Absolutely. If you need further reasons to doubt our environmental past just consider there are currently 1,844 Superfund sites — pieces of land the EPA has identified as contaminated by hazardous waste — in the U.S.
In Hinkley, the chrom-6 entered the ground from the compressor station and migrated into a two-layered aquifer underneath the Hinkley Valley. “The water table runs 100 to 120 feet down depending on where you stand,” Jeff McCarthy told me on a warm March day. “This is a complex aquifer with a layer of clay in the middle making for an upper and lower aquifer.”
PG&E is working on cleaning up the chrom-6 to “background” levels, meaning the amount of chrom-6 that existed naturally in the soil before PG&E was ever here. Though the current plume is certainly large, the levels of chrom-6 vary widely in this affected area. In California, and as a result of the Hinkley situation, the state has proposed a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 10 PPB, but the federal standard is 100 PPB for total chromium, both 3 and 6. Of both kinds of chromium, chrom-6 is the soluble form and both are widespread, though chrom-3 poses no threat to human health.
Desert-type aquifers are more prone to migrating water and toxins given the porous nature of sand as opposed to rock. If chrom-6 was allowed into an unlined pond in Iowa, for example, McCarthy tells me it might have 30 feet of organic soil to pass through to get to any ground water. McCarthy suggests this 30-foot natural filter helps “clean” the water and the toxicity dissipates as it works through the soil, not that it is ever fully removed. Western states are not so inclined; sand allows anything liquid to pass through quickly. “The sand doesn’t give it any resonance time,” McCarthy says.
Hinkley’s agricultural water treatment plan. Click here for larger version. (Illustration courtesy of Project Navigator)
To accomplish remediation of chrom-6 there is a two-pronged approach: ethanol injections and an organic agricultural component. Jeff Smith, PG&E’s External Communications Manager, gives me the analogy of wringing out a wet sponge. “The ethanol is great at getting the large concentrations of water out, but you’re left with a damp sponge. The agricultural units get it all the way dry.”
We drove to their ethanol facility, a small gated area near monitoring and injection wells, which are placed deep into the dry earth. “The ethanol injection is very effective at dealing with the center of the contamination (currently around 300 PPM) and bringing it down to levels of 20-30 PPM,” says McCarthy. This is denatured, 100 proof ethanol and it neutralizes the chrom-6. Using a needle valve to draw water out it is amended with 7 8 percent alcohol, three times a week, and then it’s put back into the ground. There are three lines of wells the water passes through and wells are screened at 10-foot intervals under the earth.
In total, there are 714 monitoring wells, 63 injection wells, 36 extraction wells and seven freshwater injection wells, constantly churning the water beneath my feet as I stand on the dry earth in Hinkley. None of this is visible. This process will keep up for another 40 years. Yes, 40 years – and they have already been at it for over a decade. Though much of the chrom-6 is removed, the PPB near the ethanol plant is still around 50.
Moving south, towards the compressor station, it gets higher and at ground zero, the compressor station itself, it has been measured between 4,000 – 7,300 PPB. Those are astounding numbers. As the water fans out across the valley and dissipates through the aquifer, the 236 acres of agriculture finishes off the remaining minute traces of chrom-6 in the water. PG&E has planted alfalfa, Italian rye, winter wheat, and sudangrass and the organics from the crops convert the chrom-6, as it precipitates out, as chrom-3.
Organic agriculture is part of the remediation process of removing chromium 6. (Photo Michael Cervin / Planet Experts)
“Given the agricultural history in Hinkley there’s a kind of elegance to bringing back the roots of farming,” Smith says. Yes, that sounds nice, but I doubt anyone concerns themselves with poetic justice at this point. Once harvested, the crops then go to local farmers as feed for their cattle. The processes are impressive, and they are massive in scope. And they are working. Still, you can understand why people in Hinkley have fled. Fears over their water are still prevalent.
However, there is progress and the earth has a stunning ability to heal itself, albeit slowly and with innumerable casualties along the way. Yes, it is a long journey back, but the good news is that contaminated soil and water can be, and is, getting cleaned and restored. Our planet can heal itself and we can help it along. Obviously, our water source and supply is sensitive and needs to be safeguarded. Awareness needs to be raised and companies, farms and corporations large and small, as well as individuals, need to be held accountable for anything they put into our ground water.
A fitting sign, especially during the worst of the groundwater contamination. (Photo: Michael Cervin / Planet Experts)
The Hinkley story is a sad saga and one that reminds everyone that water needs to be protected and monitored constantly. That the chrom-6 migrated seven miles out from its point of origin tells us what we already know: water will go where it will and toxins are no respecters of persons. That it can be cleaned is a product of science and nature. That there is a long view to hope for the restoration of the Hinkley Valley is a uniquely human thing.
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.”
by Mike Lamb
HINKLEY — Last January when John Izbicki with the United States Geological Survey began looking for domestic water wells to test for his $5.4 million study on Chromium-6, John Turner was glad to offer his property on Mulberry Road.
Izbicki’s five-year quest is to find out how much of the chromium 6 in Hinkley’s groundwater can be attributed to Pacific Gas & Electric’s contamination years ago and how much was put there by nature. His testing, however, includes other metals in the water.
The study is made up of eight tasks, according to the USGS. The first is to identify the area near the mapped hexavalent chromium plume having water quality of concern to the study. The USGS also wants to determine if there are natural geological sources of chromium in the area and if these sources are contributing to groundwater chromium-6 levels. The study is scheduled for completion in 2019.
While it’s too soon to answer all those questions, one finding remains constant. Mother Nature is definitely to blame for some of the issues facing Hinkley water users.
“Forty percent of the wells exceed the state and nation’s safe drinking water level for arsenic,” Izbicki said Monday. “Twenty-seven of the 72 wells exceed the limit for arsenic.”
Izbicki sent out letters the past two weeks to the property owners who allowed him to test their wells in January. The letters provide data on their wells and Turner’s Mulberry’s property showed a high level of arsenic.
“Just got mine (letter) last night,” Turner said. “It was in the low 20s (maximum containment level).”
In 2001 the US Environmental Protection Agency lowered the maximum level of arsenic permitted in drinking water from 50 micrograms per liter (ug/L) to 10 ug/L.
Turner said he has his well tested regularly. Most of the time, Tuner said his results are slightly less than 10. But it has jumped as high as 42. He’s not sure what causes the fluctuation, but he’s hoping Izbicki’s study will eventually provide some answers.
Some Hinkley residents have raised concerns that PG&E’s remediation operations could be the cause of the rise in arsenic levels. During a November 2014 Lahontan Regional Water Control Board meeting held in Lenwood, resident Lester White demanded PG&E provide data proving arsenic was escaping from the Chromium 6 plume.
“I have a lot of concerns and the community has a lot of concerns about arsenic getting into their wells,” Lester said.
“I would think arsenic would be something the state water board would want to protect the people from. But it seems like money overpowers, or egos. There is something here that has stopped this arsenic from being checked on,” Hinkley resident Larry Griep said.
So far, Izibicki believes the arsenic in the wells he tests outside the plume is naturally occurring.
“It’s part of the geology,” Dr. Izibicki said.
Lance Eckhart, who is the director of Basin Management and Resource Planning for the Mojave Water Agency, agrees.
“Arsenic is very common throughout the arid Southwest and widespread in the High Desert,” he said. “There are a lot of metals in the groundwater that are naturally occurring. It’s very common in our service area.”
Eckhart said even Victorville has high levels of arsenic, which the water system has to thin out. That is why Eckhart recommends regular testing of domestic wells.
Large doses of arsenic consumed over a long length of time can cause harm to the human body, according to the water Resources Control Board. Ingestion of arsenic can pose a risk for cancer. Arsenic also can result in a number of non-cancer effects at higher levels of exposure involving the vascular system and the skin.
Turner is well aware of those dangers that is why he installed Reverse Osmosis Water Filtration systems at the Mulberry house.
Eckhart said said in most cases, an inexpensive water system can be purchased at a local hardware store. But a more expensive system may be needed for higher concentrations of arsenic.
“That’s a pretty easy, straight forward solution to take care of most of your issues,” he said.
Izbicki also reported that six of the 72 wells tested high levels of uranium. There were some high levels of nitrates. He said all of those are also naturally occurring metals.
Eckhart said uranium can be as high as risk as arsenic and is widespread in the High Desert. He mentioned Pioneer Town as an area with high concentration of uranium.
Mike Lamb can be reached at 760-957-0613 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @mlambdispatch.
by Jim Steinberg, The Sun
HINKLEY – Residents here have been watching chromium-6 levels for years, but a recent report shows arsenic levels in a number of wells are above the state’s safe level for drinking water.
A recently completed sampling of 72 private wells in Hinkley has found that nearly 40 percent of them have arsenic levels above the state and nation’s safe drinking water level, according to John Izbicki, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist.
Izbicki is leading a five-year study of Hinkley’s groundwater to determine how much of the world’s largest chromium-6 plume formed naturally and how much is the result of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. operations in the area.
The well testing is part of the $5.4 million study.
Data from samplings of the wells taken in January found that 27 exceed the safe drinking water standard of 10 parts per billion, Izbicki said.
In the 1950s, PG&E used chromium-6 to kill microbes and provide corrosion protection for its massive cooling towers at a natural gas pumping station in Hinkley. Those towers were drained into unlined ponds, where chromium-6 percolated into the groundwater during a time when the cancer-causing properties of the chemical were not fully known.
Arsenic can be found in wells throughout the state.
Statewide, 11 percent of the groundwater used by public water operators shows arsenic levels exceeding the 10 parts per billion arsenic threshold, said Miranda Fram, a USGS chemist based in Sacramento.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element and is harmful to the skin, digestive system, liver, nervous system and respiratory system, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
“Public water supply systems generally blend or treat the water to ensure that the water delivered to the consumers has arsenic concentrations below the (maximum contaminate level, or MCL),” Fram wrote in an email.
One private well in Hinkley exceeded the safe drinking limit for arsenic by nearly 30 times, Izbicki said in a phone interview Wednesday.
In addition, water from six of the 72 wells sampled exceeded the drinking water limit for uranium, while six of the 72 also exceeded the drinking water limit for nitrate, he said.
Last week, Hinkley residents received letters stating the USGS found unsafe levels of arsenic, uranium or nitrate in their wells, Izbicki said.
One Hinkley resident said she’s not afraid of the arsenic.
“I’m managing it,” Penny Harper said.
“I knew it was four times the MCL, now I find out that it is five times (the safe level for arsenic in drinking water),” she said after receiving the USGS report.
In 2013, PG&E installed a reverse osmosis filter under her bathroom and kitchen sinks and Harper said she maintains that system, which is her source of drinking and cooking water, Harper said her chromium-6 level is only 2 parts per billion, far below California’s safe level of 10 parts per billion, which is one-tenth the federal Environmental Protection Agency standard of 100 parts per billion.
Daron Banks, another Hinkley resident who received a letter from the USGS, installed a reverse osmosis system in his house out of concerns about chromium-6, which he said would take out both chromium-6 and arsenic.
Like Harper, the Banks’ residence has chromium-6 readings well below the state’s safe level.
By Jim Steinberg, The Sun
HINKLEY – This community’s contaminated groundwater plume has shrunk by nearly half over the past four years, according to the community’s scientific adviser.
That was half the message shared Thursday night during a community meeting.
The other half was a call to action for Hinkley residents: to shift their attention from 80 to 100 feet below ground — the depth where most of the world’s largest chromium-6 contamination resides — to start thinking about bringing the community back to life.
That includes restoring the community’s centerpiece, the Hinkley School, which closed June 6, 2013.
“I think there is a possibility for us to try to get together and get the Hinkley open,” John Turner, a longtime community member said. “As a group, we can come together and move forward. … But it’s going to take all of us getting together.”
From 1952 until 1964, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. discharged untreated chromium-6 into unlined ponds, a common practice during that era, before the cancer-causing properties of chromium-6 were understood.
The plume became known worldwide following the award-winning 2000 movie, “Erin Brockovich.”
In the fourth quarter of 2011, the plume area was about 3,000 acres and as of the third quarter of 2015, it had been reduced to about 1,600 acres, said Ian Webster, president of Brea-based Project Navigator Ltd., the scientific adviser to the Hinkley community.
Despite a 46 percent reduction, Hinkley’s is still the world’s largest known chromium-6 contamination plume, Webster said in a telephone interview Friday.
A PG&E spokesman credited “cooperation and hard work” for the reduction.
“We expect that progress to move forward,” PG&E’s Jeff Smith said in a telephone interview Friday. “We know there is a lot of work left to do.”
Webster and other observers at Thursday’s town meeting in the Hinkley Community and Senior Center noted a calmness and an absence of anger among those present.
“It’s a real turning point I think,” Webster said.
“What has become apparent is that people are (finally) more concerned with what is going on at the surface. … They are not picking apart aspects of the plume but are now looking at what might happen to the community,” Webster said.
One of the biggest problems facing the community, John Quass, a longtime community advocate, said Thursday, “is that we want to dabble and ding around with the past. … Our kids need a future.”
A $5.4 MILLION STUDY
A large part of that new calmness is the stabilizing influence of John Izbicki, a U.S. Geological Survey Ph.D.-level scientist leading a $5.4 million study of the Hinkley Valley to determine how much of a cancer-causing chemical in the groundwater is man-made and how much was put there by nature, Smith and Webster said.
Parked outside the senior center was a mobile testing lab from Boulder, Colorado, in town through Sunday to test as many as 100 private wells in Hinkley. Residents toured the lab facility after the meeting.
The testing will offer a broad picture of the chromium-6 profile in the Hinkley Valley, said Izbicki, who brought a USGS team with him. No Hinkley resident draws water from wells that exceed the state maximum of chromium-6, which is 10 parts per billion.
Since the Hinkley School closed, the rate of residents leaving town greatly accelerated, Turner told the community Thursday night.
As a result, the area’s only business, a convenience and gas station, closed in summer of 2015. The post office, located inside the same structure since 1958, closed a few months ahead of that.
Turner said the post office would likely reopen in the community center in July.
In July, the state 4th District Court of Appeal in Riverside reversed a lower court decision backing the Barstow Unified School District’s contention that the closure was exempt from the review process of the California Environmental Quality Act. The district’s plans for the school is unclear.
“We have a lot of people working with us to take it (the closed Hinkley school) as a charter school,” Quass said, adding that more than a few Hinkley residents travel to a charter school 45 minutes away or attend school in Barstow.
But more help from the community is needed, he said.
“Let’s keep our kids here,” Quass said. “I need your help.”
“If you want good things for Hinkley, step up,” added Turner, who is president of the nonprofit Hinkley Community and Senior Center organization.
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:
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.
Water board teams square off, debate changes
By Mike Lamb
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 email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @mlambdispatch.