By Jim Steinberg, The Sun
BARSTOW >> In the decades-long saga of the world’s largest contaminated underground water plume, Pacific Gas Electric Co. and the residents of Hinkley have never been so united for a goal: hiring U.S. Geological Survey Scientist John Izbicki.
Both sides have offered their support to get Izbicki, an internationally known research hydrologist, to conduct a multimillion-dollar, four-year study to settle the most controversial issue surrounding the town’s pollution, made famous by the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.”: To find out what part of the chromium-6 in Hinkley’s groundwater belongs to PG E and what part was put there by nature.
“This is a unique situation,” said Ian Webster, president of Project Navigator LTD., the scientific adviser to the Hinkley community said during a meeting in Barstow last week. “All parties at the table agree on something. We think this project is pivotal to moving the Hinkley solution ahead.”
Although a formal contract has not been signed, late last week, PG E officials sent Izbicki what has been described as “thousands and thousands of megabytes” of data on well sample readings and other measurements that the San Francisco-based utility has been compiling for decades.
“The data will be used to understand where things are changing” in regard to chromium-6 in the Hinkley groundwater and thus help guide elements of the study, Izbicki said.
Work is beginning on the roughly $5 million study “on the honor system,” Izbicki said. There’s an assumption that a formal contract and funding mechanism will be developed and signed in a few months.
Last week, the governor-appointed state board that sets policy for the Lahontan Regional Quality Control Board, the agency overseeing the Hinkley clean-up, informally gave their blessing for the state agency to manage the Izbicki/USGS study.
PG E will fund an escrow account where the Lahontan water agency can pay the USGS for Izbicki’s services as the study, which will use cutting-edge analytical techniques, progresses.
Izbicki spent most of 2013 developing the scope of work for the study, which officially began late last week.
Kimberly Cox, a Lahontan board member from Helendale, said “Dr. Izbicki’swork in the Mojave is renowned. He is like a god in our area in water science.”
Izbicki has been conducting research in the Mojave Desert for some 20 years and his scientific papers are frequently published in the International Journal of Geophysics and other scientific publications.
Much of that research has involved the geochemistry of chromium-6.
In the 1950s and 1960s, PG E used the cancer-causing chemical chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, to prevent rust and algae buildup in cooling towers at its Hinkley natural gas compressor station.
The chemical, widely used before its cancer-causing properties were known, was discharged into unlined ponds and from there entered groundwater.
Of Izbicki’s involvement with background study No. 2, board member Amy Horne, a Truckee resident, said “Dr. Izbicki, where have you been for all these years? It is so wonderful to have your study. Although it is not going to give us all the answers, it is going to give us a lot of answers. It is going to be hard to wait four years.”
Izbicki’s study will replace one conducted in 2007 that was discredited by three scientific reviewers in 2011. The three reviewers found flaws in differing segments of that study’s methodology.
Until Izbicki’s study is complete, several conclusions of the first study, including that the maximum concentration of naturally occurring chromium-6 in the Hinkley area is 3.1 parts per billion, are still used for setting board policies and requirements for PG E.