The utility delivered letters to about 100 homeowners on or near the boundary of a growing plume of water laced with cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.

An empty house sits in the path of the plume of chromium-tainted groundwater north of the PG&E plant in Hinkley, Calif. The company has offered to buy about 100 properties on or near the plume. (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times / November 24, 2010)

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
November 24, 2010

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has expressed interest in buying about 100 properties in the town of Hinkley, Calif., that are near a plume of groundwater tainted by cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.

The utility, which reached a $333-million settlement with 660 Hinkley residents in 1997 for alleged injuries from chromium-laced water that leaked from its disposal ponds, hand-delivered letters last week expressing interest in purchasing the homes.

“Some folks have called us back wanting to know more. But we haven’t made any offers yet,” company spokesman Jeff Smith said Tuesday. He added: “If people are interested in selling, we’re interested in buying. We’re prepared to buy all 100 properties.”

If all goes according to plan, Smith said, “We hope to have this resolved as soon as possible. But if there are folks who are not interested right now, but come back in a few months, we’ll talk with them.”

The company is particularly interested in acquiring homes on or near the boundary of the plume of contaminated underground water, which is more than 2 ½ miles long and 1 mile wide. It also has expressed interest in homes where tests have shown elevated levels of chromium in the water, and properties where owners could affect the plume’s behavior by pumping groundwater.

“We are also interesting in talking to homeowners in areas we might want for remediation efforts,” Smith said.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state regulatory agency responsible for protecting the area’s water, is investigating how the utility handled and reported its testing for chromium.

Northern borders of the plume have crept about 1,800 feet beyond a containment boundary set by PG&E in 2008, and tests have shown elevated levels of hexavalent chromium in domestic and agricultural water supplies. Hexavalent chromium exposure has been linked to stomach tumors and other health hazards, according to state water officials.

The company’s offer to buy so many homes in the economically hard-hit farming community about five miles west of Barstow drew mixed reactions.

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