By Jim Steinberg, The Sun
BARSTOW >> Almost 28 years since state regulators learned there was a chromium-6 problem in Hinkley, officials from the same agency approved a comprehensive cleanup order for the world’s largest known plume of this cancer-causing chemical.
The vote late Wednesday night was unanimous by the six governor-appointed members of the Lahontan Regional Water Control Board for an order that will, in the words of a scientific consultant for the Hinkley community, “govern the cleanup for the next 20 years.”
More important than the cleanup itself, the order should serve as a starting point for the rebuilding of the Hinkley community, said Amy Horne, a longtime board member.
In the years since the plume was discovered, Hinkley’s population has dwindled from 8,000 to about 1,000, Horne said in an impassioned speech after the vote.
She urged the members of the Hinkley community that still remained to allow Pacific Gas & Electric Co. “to take off the black hat.”
The order requires PG&E to further define the plume, monitor it and knock down chromium-6 concentrations, especially in the core area near its Hinkley natural gas compression station.
From 1952 until 1964, San Francisco-based PG&E discharged untreated chromium-6 from cooling towers in its Hinkley station into unlined ponds, a common practice during that era, before the cancer-causing properties of chromium-6 were fully understood.
From the ponds, chromium-6 percolated into the ground.
Hinkley’s water contamination problems were thrust globally into public view in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich” starring Julia Roberts.
The order includes provisions for PG&E to:
- Reach and maintain 50 parts per billion chromium-6 in 90 percent of the wells (above 50 ppb at the time of the order) by the first quarter 2025.
- Reach and maintain 10 ppb in 80 percent of all wells between 10 ppb and 50 ppb by Dec. 31, 2032.
No one living in the Hinkley area is believed to be drinking well water exceeding the state standard, which is 10 ppb, officials say.
However, wells near the compressor station have readings as high as 4,100 ppb.
No member of the Hinkley community attending the Wednesday night meeting in Barstow spoke in favor of the cleanup and abatement order.
Several asked the board to delay its decision so that numerous changes in the order could be evaluated. Others did not support changes in plume mapping procedures and water replacement requirements placed on PG&E should the cleanup in some way bring back chromium-6 at higher levels in drinking water.
Members of the Lahontan agency’s prosecution staff, whose members have been working on the Hinkley problem for years, also objected to some of the changes in plume mapping procedures.
The state learned of the Hinkley chromium-6 plume on Dec. 7, 1987, Horne said.
In 2013, Hinkley’s only school closed, and this summer Hinkley lost its only business, a convenience market and gas station.
Carrmela Spasojevich, a former Hinkley resident and current landowner, said, in a letter to the water agency, she has been “amazed’ at how the original cleanup and abatement order drafted by the Lahontan’s prosecution team in January has had “ridiculous changes and illogical requirements” since the document has been in the hands of an advisory team, created to craft the final document.
State water agency officials say that a group detached from the day-to-day monitoring of PG&E’s Hinkley cleanup was needed to create an unbiased document and foster separation of functions within the agency, which judges look upon favorably should the cleanup order be challenged in court.
Spasojevich and other Hinkley residents objected to the new mapping criteria that called for PG&E and its consultants to use “best professional judgment” in maping the plume boundaries.
In 2010, Spasojevich, now a Virginia resident, told the Lahontan agency’s board that PG&E’s plume had migrated into the lower aquifer for the first time.
The original cleanup order written by the prosecution team gave PG&E specific dates for cleaning up the lower aquifer. The order approved Wednesday has no time frame.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Spasojevich said she is considering an appeal of the board action Wednesday.