Erin Brockovich

Legal aide visits toxic water site
Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
Posted: 11/15/2010 09:02:32 PM PST

Former legal clerk turned consumer advocate Erin Brockovich said Monday she plans to conduct independent tests of groundwater in the Mojave Desert town of Hinkley after news surfaced last week that a chemically-laced plume had spread.

Brockovich, who in the 1990s led the charge in a landmark legal settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric, also plans on rallying Hinkley residents for a community meeting after Thanksgiving.

“There’s definitely some questionable things happening, and someone’s been asleep behind the wheel,” Brockovich said in a telephone interview Monday.

“It’s a shame for this community to know they are sitting ducks.”

The civil case fueled by Brockovich’s tenacity inspired the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich,” which won actress Julia Roberts an Academy Award for her portrayal of the title character.

On Monday, Brockovich visited Hinkley residents Roberta Walker, an original plaintiff in the three-year civil case that spanned from 1993 to 1996, and Carmela Gonzalez. Levels of hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, in their wells have increased over the years, spurring alarm.

In 2008, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a cleanup and abatement order to PG&E after learning the plume, which is PG&E’s responsibility to contain to a certain boundary, was spreading. In March, water board officials learned the plume was spreading again.

PG&E has implemented an action plan and has installed hundreds of monitoring wells along the edge of the plume. The goal is to reduce the levels of chromium 6 to accepted background levels of 3.2 parts per billion. The state’s drinking water standard is 50 parts per billion.

In addition, engineers at PG&E are injecting ethanol into Hinkley’s groundwater, which chemically transforms chromium 6 into the harmless trivalent chromium, and are using contaminated water to grow alfalfa, which filters out the contaminants.

“The health and safety of the people of Hinkley remains our top priority,” PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said Monday. “Whenever we do identify where the plume may have expanded, we take that extremely seriously, and we take immediate steps to remedy that.”

He said natural fluctuations of the water flow can cause the plume to expand and contract.

Brockovich, however, is skeptical, and believes PG&E should have been more diligent about monitoring the levels of chromium 6 in resident supply wells, where she says the real threat exists.

“They’re not looking at supply wells, they’re going in and dropping in monitoring wells and relying on that,” Brockovich said. “I’m interested in the supply wells, and why they are buying up some houses and leaving others.”

Last August, PG&E had Gonzalez’s house appraised and offered to buy it from her, Gonzalez said.

“They did offer to buy me out, but they wanted to pay current depressed market values, and I don’t think that’s fair,” Gonzalez said. “They’re the ones who contaminated my well. They never admitted any guilt.”

She recently had her supply well tested for chromium 6 levels. The test showed the level of chromium 6 in her well to be at 2.4 parts per billion. Six months prior to that, a test showed levels at about 0.09 parts per billion.

“The amount of chromium 6 has been increasing in my well,” Gonzalez said.

She is fighting for a state law setting in stone the maximum levels of chromium 6 in groundwater supplies. She would be satisfied with a recommendation by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to set the ceiling of parts per billion at 0.06.

“We need to get a limit established that is protective of health,” Gonzalez said.

PG&E settled its lawsuit with more than 600 Hinkley residents in 1996 for a landmark $333 million. Many of the sick residents blamed the contaminated water for their crippling health problems that included Hodgkin’s disease and breast cancer.

To read entire story, click here.