The small town made famous in the Julia Roberts 2000 hit film Erin Brockovich is back in the news as residents face a deadline today to either sell their homes to the power company or stay and have a water treatment installed at no cost.
So far about 60 per cent of the 314 homeowners of Hinkley, California, who live within a mile of a chromium contaminated plume have decided to move. The rest, according to early reports, have decided to stay.
In the movie Erin Brokovich’ which is based on true events, Roberts plays a hard-bitten, single mom working as a paralegal for a grumpy attorney with a heart of gold. She stumbles upon the fact people are getting sick from a polluting power company and helps successfully sue the corporate behemoth in a class-action lawsuit.
In real life, Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to a $333 million settlement with the town in 1997 after scientists found hexavalent chromium 6 in the local wells, a result of pollution caused by the company.
The clean-up of the pollutant and its by-products remain a contentious issue between Hinkley residents and Pacific Gas & Electric.
‘We’ve been working with the Hinkley community for a couple of years and are listening to their concerns. This is why we started this program,’ PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith told ABC News.
Some residents have said that the expansion of the area admitted by PG&E to be contaminated is an indication that the company is still polluting the area, reports ABC. But Smith said it’s not that the pollutants are spreading, but that the company is spreading its testing.
‘The reason we are finding more contaminated areas is because we are testing in areas that haven’t been tested before and as a result the plume map keeps changing. But PG&E have stopped using the toxins since the 1960s,’ he said.
Now some residents say there’s a new problem: chromium clean-up efforts have generated polluting byproducts including arsenic and manganese.
‘Pollutants are showing up in our water and these are not being addressed by PG&E,” Hinkely Elementary School Principal Larry Notario told ABC News.
‘Also, the water fountains at our school have been shut off for a year while PG&E has been supplying us with bottled water,’ he said.
One leading community activist, Daron Hanks, has decided to end his fight with PG&E and sell his property, according to ABC.
‘We were devastated when we found out that we had chromium in our water. Opting for the buyout was such a difficult decision to make’ Hanks said.
‘My wife’s family had been affected by the pollutants. Members of her family had cancer and Hodgkin’s disease. We don’t want our son to suffer from this.’
Ray Pearce decided against selling.
‘I own both my home and my son’s home and for a total of 20 acres I don’t think PG&E will give me enough to buy this much somewhere else,’ Ray Pearce told ABC News.
‘Besides, I don’t want to leave my place. I was born in this house and I lived here for 57 years. If I wanted to leave I would have left a long time ago.’
As for the value of the properties whose owners have decided to sell, PG&E told ABC News that it is not appraising them based on the conditions at Hinkley, but as though they were in a normal town.
With the buyouts, there are fears that the town’s already small population will dwindle.
In the late 1980s, Hinkley’s population was around 3000, with about 600 kids attending schools, one resident told ABC.
‘Over time, as PG&E bought people out, the student population dwindled to 277 students.’
Crusader: Julia Robert (left) as Erin Brockovich and the real Erin Brockovich (right).
PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith.
Pacific Gas & Electric field watering equipment sits idle after the company was recently ordered to stop spraying well water contaminated with hexavalent chromium July 19, 2001 in the Mojave Desert town of Hinkley, CA, west of Barstow.