By Jim Steinberg – The Sun, Staff Writer
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.