Jim Steinberg,Staff Writer
Posted: 06/23/2012 04:12:21 PM PDT

HINKLEY – The clock is ticking for residents. A deadline looms on Aug. 31.

Everyone faces deadlines: taxes, vehicle license tags, credit card due dates, the last day to get a tag to hunt elk.

But Hinkley residents are facing something much more life altering.

For some 300 residents who have spent years – perhaps decades – drinking water laced with chromium 6, decision time is fast approaching for choosing either a newly pioneered whole house water replacement system or selling their home to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which will bulldoze it.

“I don’t know why there has to be a deadline. This is not like trading in your car – it’s your life,” said Jay Potter who has lived in Hinkley for 31 years.

Early this year, PG&E announced an expanded plan to provide chromium 6-free drinking water to Hinkley residents whose wells draw from its infamous plume depicted in the 2000 hit movie “Erin Brockovich.” The same announcement also dramatically lowered the threshold for homes to qualify for its buy-back program.

And in April the San Francisco-based utility announced both the Aug. 31 decision time date and that its expanded property purchase program will cease at the end of the year.

Sheryl Bilbrey, PG&E director of chromium remediation, said it is not the company’s intent to buy up Hinkley. The water filtration system, which PG&E will pay for up to five years or until the state has adopted a drinking water standard for Chromium 6, will provide residents with pure water for all household uses, she said.

Once the standard has been set, PG&E will review the whole house water program, she said.

Early indications are that perhaps 40 percent – or more – of the 300 homeowners will opt for the buy-out, said Jon Quass, who teaches American history in nearby Barstow and co-chairs the Hinkley Community Advisory Committee, a group of residents set up last year by PG&E to provide the company with feedback.

In the 1950s and 1960s, PG&E, like many companies in that era, used chromium 6 to control algae and protect metal against rust at its natural-gas processing pumping station in Hinkley.

This water was periodically dumped into an unlined pit, where the chemical seeped into the groundwater.

The movie told the story leading up to a 1996 court settlement in which PG&E doled out more than $333 million to more than 600 Hinkley residents.

But the story is far from over.

Since that movie the known boundaries of the plume have expanded significantly and it now is about five miles long from north to south and 2&1/4 miles wide from east to west.

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