PG&E – Hinkley

Jim Steinberg, Staff Writer
Posted: 09/06/2011 10:50:45 AM PDT

HINKLEY — When Elaine Kearney and husband Greg first purchased their 10 acres here, they would bottle up some fresh well water to take back to their Ontario home.

That was in the mid-1980s and although there may have been rumblings about mysterious illnesses in town, the Kearneys never heard about them.

For the Kearneys, the area was magical. The simple, High Desert lifestyle led them to build their dream house on the property in 1995 and sell out in Ontario.

“We were desert people. Everyone in the family loves dirt bikes,” Elaine said.

Now they want out of Hinkley.

They are one of two kinds of people here: Those that want the groundwater water cleaned up and life restored before the town became a symbol for chromium 6 water contamination, and those that just want to leave.

Both paths have their own set of difficulties.

As for those who want to leave, well, ask yourself this question: Would you want to buy a house in Hinkley?

Real estate agents won’t show houses in Hinkley. And even if they did, not many would want to see them.

“We shy away from Hinkley because of liability,” said Joe Brady, who owns Barstow Reality Group and is president of the The Bradco Cos. in Victorville, a commercial real estate company. “There are some huge disclosure issues on the real estate there.”

Unincorporated Hinkley’s population is estimated this year to be slightly less than 1,700, down about 10 percent from 2000.

Plume apparently growing

Instead of getting better, there is growing evidence that the tainted water plume — made famous in the 2000 hit movie, “Erin Brockovich,” is either spreading or was always larger than believed.

Last month, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. officials announced 12 of 56 new water sampling wells placed beyond the known northern plume boundary showed chromium 6 levels higher than what is thought to be the naturally occurring background level.

The state and federal governments have not determined how much chromium 6 in water is too much, although both are working on it.

Late last year, a California agency determined that 0.02 parts per billion is the public health goal, but that number is not an enforceable limit.

At this time, 3.1 parts per billion is thought to be the maximum amount of chromium 6 that could be naturally occurring in Hinkley.

Amounts higher than that are generally thought to be the result of PG&E’s past industrial wastewater disposal practices.

PG&E contractors are currently drilling or have recently drilled many sampling wells well north of 12 contaminated ones in an effort to find where the plume is not.

“We are glad they decided to go well north,” said Lauri Kemper, assistant executive officer for the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Board, which is overseeing PG&E’s management of the contaminated plume and will determine how — and when — it is to be cleaned.

“Their normal approach has been to go out north in little steps away from the last detection. But this is a giant leap forward” with the idea of getting ahead of the plume and working backward to where it is, Kemper said.

Starting in the 1950s, PG&E used chromium 6 to kill microbes and provide corrosion protection for its massive cooling towers at a natural gas pumping station in Hinkley.

The water from the cooling tower was frequently drained into unlined ponds – a common practice at the time, when the cancer risks of chromium 6 were

Hinkley resident and critic of PG&E’s toxic groundwater remediation process wants more monitoring wells to better track the contamination in Hinkley. (Eric Reed/For The Sun)
unrecognized.

From the ponds, the contaminated cooling tower water seeped into Hinkley’s groundwater.

As part of its clean-up strategy, PG&E pioneered and is operating the largest plant in the world, which uses alcohol injected into the groundwater to change cancer causing chromium 6 into chromium 3.

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