Jim Steinberg, Staff Writer – Redlands Daily Facts
HINKLEY – The clock is ticking for residents. A deadline looms on Aug. 31.
Everyone faces deadlines: taxes, vehicle license tags, credit card due dates, the last day to get a tag to hunt elk.
But Hinkley residents are facing something much more life altering.
For some 300 residents who have spent years – perhaps decades – drinking water laced with chromium 6, decision time is fast approaching for choosing either a newly pioneered whole house water replacement system or selling their home to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which will bulldoze it.
“I don’t know why there has to be a deadline. This is not like trading in your car – it’s your life,” said Jay Potter who has lived in Hinkley for 31 years.
Early this year, PG&E announced an expanded plan to provide chromium 6-free drinking water to Hinkley residents whose wells draw from its infamous plume depicted in the 2000 hit movie “Erin Brockovich.” The same announcement also dramatically lowered the threshold for homes to qualify for its buy-back program.
And in April the San Francisco-based utility announced both the Aug. 31 decision time date and that its expanded property purchase program will cease at the end of the year.
Sheryl Bilbrey, PG&E director of chromium remediation, said it is not the company’s intent to buy up Hinkley. The water filtration system, which PG&E will pay for up to five years or until the state has adopted a drinking water standard for Chromium 6, will provide residents with pure water for all household uses, she said.
Once the standard has been set, PG&E will review the whole house water program, she said.
Early indications are that perhaps 40 percent – or more – of the 300 homeowners will opt for the buy-out, said Jon Quass, who teaches American history in nearby Barstow and co-chairs the Hinkley Community Advisory Committee, a group of residents set up last year by PG&E to provide the company with feedback.
In the 1950s and 1960s, PG&E, like many companies in that era, used chromium 6 to control algae and protect metal against rust at its natural-gas processing pumping station in Hinkley.
This water was periodically dumped into an unlined pit, where the chemical seeped into the groundwater.
The movie told the story leading up to a 1996 court settlement in which PG&E doled out more than $333 million to more than 600 Hinkley residents.
But the story is far from over.
Since that movie the known boundaries of the plume have expanded significantly and it now is about five miles long from north to south and 2&1/4 miles wide from east to west.
This is three miles farther to the north and one mile farther east than depicted in November 2008.
Greg and Roberta Walker were part of the original 600 residents in the lawsuit. They stayed in town, buying another house well to the east of the plume and away from where the plume was thought to be migrating.
Their daughter, Reanna Banks, and son-in-law, Daron Banks, moved nearby. Now the plume has moved into both properties.
Both families want nothing to do with the new, sophisticated water filtration system recently unveiled to members of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is overseeing the cleanup of Hinkley’s water.
Daron Banks, who teaches physical education at Barstow High School, said he and his wife are thinking of moving to Oak Hills, near Hesperia.
“We want to get far away so lighting doesn’t strike us a third time,” he said.
“We are all working on these choices. We need more information,” said Joel Valenzuela, a longtime Hinkley resident who also serves on the Citizens Advisory Committee.
Potter wants to see if he can qualify for a third option – having PG&E drill a deeper well on his property.
Only 15 percent to 20 percent of the Hinkley property owners over the plume have wells that reach into the lower aquifer, said Ian Webster, president of Project Navigator Ltd., a Brea-based firm selected by PG& and the advisory council to provide residents with their own technical experts.
Potter said if that deeper well is not an option, he might go with the buy-out plan, although he has no idea where he might move.
“The only one I know I am not interested in is the filter,” Potter said.
The number of people who might leave appears to be “an unfortunate ramification” of PG&E’s proposal, Webster said Friday.
“People are upset,” he said. “They have been living a long time with this issue and its uncertainty.”