Brooke Self – Staff Writer / Desert Dispatch
HINKLEY • Groundwater contaminated by higher levels of hexavalent chromium in Hinkley is migrating west and is now within a mile radius of a school, a market and a church, a water board official confirmed Tuesday.
“It is significant because this new plume migration threatens additional domestic wells including the Hinkley Market, a church well and the Hinkley School,” said Lisa Dernbach, senior geologist for the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and a project manager on the case.
The three properties will now be eligible for PG&E’s property purchase program which includes any property within a mile radius of the chromium 6 plume, she said.
Pacific Gas and Electric was found to have originally contaminated the groundwater in Hinkley with toxic levels of hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, in the 50s and 60s after it leaked from one of the company’s cooling towers into unlined ponds at the site.
The tiny community and its water issues were made famous by the Hollywood film “Erin Brockovich.” PG&E settled with lawyers and community members almost 20 years ago for $333 million, according to previous reports.
Current property owners among the chromium 6 plume are being included in a property purchase program or a whole-house water conversion system by PG&E, under the orders of the water board.
Locals on Tuesday said at least two to three homes in the community are being demolished weekly.
The plume’s new western migration was discovered in the last quarter of 2012 and first quarter of 2013 when the official map of the area was updated with PG&E’s monitoring data, according to Dernbach. She said the data shows that groundwater in Hinkley naturally moves at a rate of 1 to 4 feet per day.
“Groundwater is like a slow river; it doesn’t stop,” she said. “As long as there is a low point, in this case the Harper Lake Valley, the Hinkley groundwater continues to move.”
That rate can speed up due to nearby wells that are under heavy water use, she said. According to Dernbach, PG&E is in discussions to purchase the heifer ranch off of Highway 58, which is a major user of water in the area and is believed to be pulling the groundwater to the west.
PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said by phone Tuesday that the company is currently in full compliance with the regional water board’s orders.
“We do not believe it is part of our plume,” Smith said. “The map has been changed because there is an existing order that requires the map to be drawn to any detection of 3.1 parts per billion (of chromium 6).”
Smith said only one monitoring well was found to be at the 3.1 ppb in the area, a level just at the water board’s standard for naturally occurring background levels of the chemical compound in the Hinkley Valley.
“At this point we believe it is premature or inaccurate to say that this was due to PG&E’s actions,” Smith said. “We are currently investigating the area with the water board and the U.S. Geological Society.”
Smith said the company does not believe that science will support that the plume’ migration westward is part of their actions.
“To suggest that the plume is migrating in that direction definitely … we don’t believe it is,” he said.
The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board will hold a public meeting July 17 at the Lenwood Hampton Inn at 7 p.m. The water board will consider certifying the latest environmental impact report that addresses the plume’s expansion. After the report is certified, additional remediation actions by PG&E will be required, Dernbach said.
The Community Advisory Committee, made up of Hinkley residents will hold its next meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Hinkley School.
For more information regarding Hinkley and the Lahontan Water Board’s actions go to www.waterboards.ca.gov.
The Hinkley Market
The Hinkley Market is the only gas station in the community and is located on Hinkley Road about 500 feet from the school and the Hinkley Bible Church near Highway 58. Owner Ali “Alex” Abuhantash, a Jordanian-American, said before the plume expanded within a mile of his business he was already in discussions with a lawyer about being included in PG&E’s buyout program. With the school’s recent closure and more than half the town leaving because of the buyout offers, he said his business is struggling to survive.
“Plume or no plume, there are no more people left,” he said. “It impacts my business either way and we will have to close.”
Abuhantash said he took out a $50,000 loan last month in order to keep the market afloat and expects to shut down at the end of the year.
“They’ve ruined my freedom and my retirement,” said Abuhantash, a father of nine children. “I almost got there (to retirement) but they took it from me in the last (years) of my life. My life is not really going good right now.”
Abuhantash said he even got an offer for $700,000 to sell the store and all of its inventory four years ago from a local businessman. He refused because the business was doing well at the time, he said. Now he regrets the decision.
“I’m not sure I will have the money to open another business,” he said, “opening a gas station is very expensive. … My future and my freedom are in PG&E’s hands.”
The Hinkley School
Though the school has been closed due to shrinking enrollment and budget cuts, PG&E is already working to outfit the property with a new water line and system under a past water board settlement. That project is expected to be complete by the end of 2013 or early 2014, according to Barstow Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Malan.
Malan said the district has not been in communication with PG&E regarding the recent western plume expansion just south of the school at Serra Road. As for what the district plans to do with the empty school, he said, “I believe that would be something the school board would have to consider in the future.”
Hinkley Bible Church
Hinkley Bible Church is one of two churches in the tiny community, according to several locals. Multiple calls to the Hinkley Bible Church were not returned on Tuesday.