By Jim Steinberg – The Sun
HINKLEY >> A new plan to determine how much of the world’s largest chromium-6 contamination site here is the result of Pacific Gas Electric Co. operations and what part comes from nature has circulated among water regulators, the utility, Hinkley residents and their scientific advisers.
This crucial study to determine the chromium-6 level in Hinkley is expected to start next year and conclude in 2018, said John Izbicki, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in San Diego.
Izbicki has been hired by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board to do a thorough, scientifically intensive analysis after an earlier study looking at the same issue was discredited and determined to be seriously flawed by a panel of experts hired by the state of California.
“I think this is what the community has been waiting for more than 50 years,” said Daron Banks, a community activist who has been speaking to Izbicki for several years and first proposed that he use his expertise to delve into what’s really been happening with the chromium-6 beneath the surface of Hinkley.
“All we want is the truth,” Banks said. At the end of the Izbicki/USG study, will be a picture of what’s happened to Hinkley’s water over the decades that water regulators, PG E and Hinkley residents will be assured is the most accurate as scientifically possible, he said.
A conclusion of the inadequate first study, in 2007, that the maximum level of naturally occurring chromium-6 in Hinkley groundwater is 3.1 parts per billion, will continue to be used to determine plume map boundaries until a new background level is adopted by the appointed citizen group, which sets policy for the Lahontan board.
The Izbicki/USGS study, with an estimated price tag of more than $4.5 million, will use sophisticated analytical tools at U.S. Geological Survey research labs in Menlo Park, Denver, Boulder, Co., and Reston, Va.
The USGS will contribute $1 million to the study as a federal match.
PG E will pay for the balance and has already put money in an escrow account controlled by the state.
Jeff Smith, a PG E spokesman, said that the study proposal completed by Izbicki, “is a very positive step. We look forward to working with Dr. Izbicki.”
An arms-length distance between Izbicki and PG E was established to eliminate the perception that Izbicki and his scientific associates would be influenced by PG E’s controls of the purse strings.
At these specialized labs, scientists will be sleuthing chromium-6 molecules, searching for the subtle differences between its molecular fingerprint that was put in the water by nature over hundreds of years and what is there as the result of PG E’s compressor station operations.
This is a vital distinction because California law requires polluters clean up to the level that existed prior to their arrival — even if the amount of the contaminate is well below what the state has determined is “safe” in drinking water.
Other sophisticated techniques will be used to determine groundwater age and the underground migration of chromium-6.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, water from cooling towers at Hinkley’s natural gas compressor station was periodically dumped into unlined ponds on the plant site.
This was an era when chromium-6 was added to cooling tower fluids to combat rust and to kill algae. Gradually, during this period, scientists became aware of the cancer-causing potential of chromium-6 when ingested and its use was phased out.
In several areas inside and outside the current plume boundaries PG E’s environmental teams maintain that much or all of the chromium-6 picked up in testing was not put there by their operations.
Hinkley residents generally view those assertions with disbelief.
Much of Izbicki’s 33 years as a research scientist has been spent researching groundwater movement and the geochemistry in the Mojave Desert.
He has been involved in the development of most of the sophisticated techniques outlined in his 41-page study proposal and has used all of them in the field.
Izbicki said he has published more than 100 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Several have been related to the identification of chromium-6 in groundwater from differing sources by documenting slight differences in their molecular structure.
A dating technique Izbicki has used many times involves tritium, a form of oxygen molecule that is rarely created as cosmic rays enter the atmosphere but formed in significant quantities by man-made nuclear events.
The period when chromium-6 was used in Hinkley’s cooling towers largely overlaps the era of atmospheric testing of nuclear explosives.
Thus the presence of tritium in groundwater will date stamp it as having been around when chromium-6 was percolating through the soils near the compressor station.
Tritium levels will be documented by a tritium counter in the USGS Menlo Park laboratory, Izbicki said. This device is a rarity in a commercial labs, he said.
Other gases trapped in the groundwater will be used as markers also including argon, neon and nitrogen, he said.
A significant portion of the project’s funding has been allocated to quality assurance procedures to validate the accuracy of the findings, he said.