By Jim Steinberg, The Sun
HINKLEY – This community’s contaminated groundwater plume has shrunk by nearly half over the past four years, according to the community’s scientific adviser.
That was half the message shared Thursday night during a community meeting.
The other half was a call to action for Hinkley residents: to shift their attention from 80 to 100 feet below ground — the depth where most of the world’s largest chromium-6 contamination resides — to start thinking about bringing the community back to life.
That includes restoring the community’s centerpiece, the Hinkley School, which closed June 6, 2013.
“I think there is a possibility for us to try to get together and get the Hinkley open,” John Turner, a longtime community member said. “As a group, we can come together and move forward. … But it’s going to take all of us getting together.”
From 1952 until 1964, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. discharged untreated chromium-6 into unlined ponds, a common practice during that era, before the cancer-causing properties of chromium-6 were understood.
The plume became known worldwide following the award-winning 2000 movie, “Erin Brockovich.”
In the fourth quarter of 2011, the plume area was about 3,000 acres and as of the third quarter of 2015, it had been reduced to about 1,600 acres, said Ian Webster, president of Brea-based Project Navigator Ltd., the scientific adviser to the Hinkley community.
Despite a 46 percent reduction, Hinkley’s is still the world’s largest known chromium-6 contamination plume, Webster said in a telephone interview Friday.
A PG&E spokesman credited “cooperation and hard work” for the reduction.
“We expect that progress to move forward,” PG&E’s Jeff Smith said in a telephone interview Friday. “We know there is a lot of work left to do.”
Webster and other observers at Thursday’s town meeting in the Hinkley Community and Senior Center noted a calmness and an absence of anger among those present.
“It’s a real turning point I think,” Webster said.
“What has become apparent is that people are (finally) more concerned with what is going on at the surface. … They are not picking apart aspects of the plume but are now looking at what might happen to the community,” Webster said.
One of the biggest problems facing the community, John Quass, a longtime community advocate, said Thursday, “is that we want to dabble and ding around with the past. … Our kids need a future.”
A $5.4 MILLION STUDY
A large part of that new calmness is the stabilizing influence of John Izbicki, a U.S. Geological Survey Ph.D.-level scientist leading a $5.4 million study of the Hinkley Valley to determine how much of a cancer-causing chemical in the groundwater is man-made and how much was put there by nature, Smith and Webster said.
Parked outside the senior center was a mobile testing lab from Boulder, Colorado, in town through Sunday to test as many as 100 private wells in Hinkley. Residents toured the lab facility after the meeting.
The testing will offer a broad picture of the chromium-6 profile in the Hinkley Valley, said Izbicki, who brought a USGS team with him. No Hinkley resident draws water from wells that exceed the state maximum of chromium-6, which is 10 parts per billion.
Since the Hinkley School closed, the rate of residents leaving town greatly accelerated, Turner told the community Thursday night.
As a result, the area’s only business, a convenience and gas station, closed in summer of 2015. The post office, located inside the same structure since 1958, closed a few months ahead of that.
Turner said the post office would likely reopen in the community center in July.
In July, the state 4th District Court of Appeal in Riverside reversed a lower court decision backing the Barstow Unified School District’s contention that the closure was exempt from the review process of the California Environmental Quality Act. The district’s plans for the school is unclear.
“We have a lot of people working with us to take it (the closed Hinkley school) as a charter school,” Quass said, adding that more than a few Hinkley residents travel to a charter school 45 minutes away or attend school in Barstow.
But more help from the community is needed, he said.
“Let’s keep our kids here,” Quass said. “I need your help.”
“If you want good things for Hinkley, step up,” added Turner, who is president of the nonprofit Hinkley Community and Senior Center organization.