By Jim Steinberg – Staff Writer San Bernardino County Sun
HINKLEY – When given a choice between an in-home water-purification system and leaving a town made famous because of its toxic water, homeowners chose leaving by better than a two-to-one majority.
On Wednesday – two days after the deadline for residents’ responses, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced the results of several options offered in April to 300 families who reside within a mile of Hinkley’s growing toxic water plume.
The results were:
200 opted for accepting PG&E’s offer to buyout their properties.
70 opted for a whole household replacement system or a deeper well – both paid for by PG&E.
30 opted to stay on bottled water, provided by PG&E.
“A lot of people are really scared,” said Jon Quass, a schoolteacher in Barstow and longtime Hinkley resident.
“For some people this property is all they have and it has been in the family for generations…a lot of them think if they stay they will end up with absolutely nothing,” said Quass, who is among those taking the whole-household water replacement system offered by PG&E.
Those entering the buyout program must sign a legal document, which prohibits them from speaking about the transaction.
“I like it here…I’m not going anywhere,” Quass said. “I have good neighbors and it is quiet. It is good country living.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, before the cancer-causing properties of chromium 6 were known, PG&E workers in the company’s Hinkley natural gas compressor station periodically dumped water laced with the chemical into an unlined pit, where it seeped into the groundwater.
The problem – and its effects – became internationally famous after Erin Brochovich, a legal clerk, focused attention on health issues brought about by the town’s toxic water. Her efforts were depicted in the 2000 movie “Erin Brochovich.”
The plume is now thought to be at least 6 miles long and 2 miles wide.
Hinkley has about 500 households, said Robert Potter, who works on Hinkley issues for Project Navigator, a Brea-based environmental consulting firm.
Project Navigator provides technical advice to a Hinkley citizen’s group, called the Community Advisory Committee.
That such a large number of people have opted for the buyout has raised issues on the longterm survivability of Hinkley.
Ian Webster, Project Navigator’s president, said that “an unfortunate ramification of the overall Hinkley chromium 6 groundwater situation” is that even though a viable water treatment system is available to them, “many folks have just had enough and want out.”
“Hinkley’s survivability as a community is at a tipping point,” Webster said.
Larry Notario, principal of Hinkley Elementary Middle School, said that how the buyouts translate into student losses at the school is something that will be looked at very closely.
The school has just less than 300 students, down from 600 during the 1990s.
He noted, however, that 55 students come to the school from outside the Hinkley area because of its reputation for teaching excellence.
Perhaps that number could grow to help compensate for future losses resulting from the buyout.
But Quass, who has been on the Community Advisory Committee since its inception, said many of the 200 households might ultimately decide not to take the buyout offer.
Lester White, who heads the Community Advisory Committee, said Hinkley residents have been “held hostage” by the chromium 6 plume, which has made houses impossible to sell.
PG&E ended its buyout program on Oct. 15, said Jeff Smith, spokesman.
White said that the recent rapid expansion of the plume’s known boundaries has “brought the community together.”
People who have not been coming to town meetings about the water situation in years are showing up, he said.
“I think the community is savable,” he said.
PG&E’s Smith said that the buyout program is over because the company ultimately wants to restore the quality of life Hinkley had before the chromium 6 plume – not buy out everyone who lives there.
Contact Jim via email or by phone at 909-386-3855.