2013-07-26 "Toxic plume spreads, PG&E faces 2nd Hinkley suit"
by David R. Baker [http://www.sfchronicle.com/science/article/Toxic-plume-spreads-PG-amp-E-faces-2nd-Hinkley-4688046.php]:
Years ago, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. promised to clean up the groundwater beneath Hinkley, a small Mojave Desert town crossed by one of the company's natural gas pipelines.
A toxic form of chromium used by PG&E had seeped into the water, in a place where every home needs a well. Helped by a little-known law clerk named Erin Brockovich, 636 Hinkley residents sued the San Francisco utility and, in 1996, won a $333 million settlement.
But 17 years later, the chromium remains. And despite PG&E's efforts, the plume of tainted water appears to be spreading, with the chemical showing up in more wells than before.
Now, Hinkley residents who weren't part of the original court case have filed a new lawsuit against the company, saying PG&E has rendered their homes virtually worthless.
"These guys are in the middle of the desert, and they're wholly dependent on well water - there's no option," said Javier van Oordt, a principal at the Santa Ana law firm handling the case. "I can say with a fair amount of confidence that nobody but PG&E is buying property out there right now."
Hinkley is, in fact, emptying out.
PG&E has been buying and bulldozing homes from residents who have decided to flee - 130 properties so far. The town, about 15 miles northwest of Barstow in San Bernardino County, recently lost its only school. Exact population figures aren't available because the town is unincorporated, but some longtime residents say the population has dropped substantially to 3,000 or fewer.
'It's a ghost town' -
Roberta Walker, 59, helped craft the original lawsuit, doing her own research that she passed on to Brockovich, played by actress Julia Roberts in a 2000 movie about the case.
Now Walker and her husband are negotiating with PG&E to sell their home.
"It's inevitable," said Walker, who is not part of the new suit. "We can't stay here. It's a ghost town."
The new class-action suit, filed July 19 in San Bernardino County, covers Hinkley residents who did not participate in the first lawsuit - people who thought their homes and wells were miles away from the chromium plume. More than 100 property owners could eventually join, said van Oordt, with the Callahan & Blaine law firm.
The chemical - hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6 - started leaching into Hinkley's water decades ago.
The town lies along the route of a pipeline bringing natural gas from Texas to the Bay Area. PG&E built a compressor station for the pipeline in 1952 and for the next 14 years used hexavalent chromium in the station's cooling system, adding the substance to water as a way to fight corrosion in the machinery. The chromium-laced water was then dumped in unlined ponds nearby.
The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed classifying chromium-6 as likely to cause cancer when ingested. The EPA already considers it a carcinogen when inhaled.
Since settling the original lawsuit, PG&E has tried to pen in the plume of tainted groundwater while testing ways to clean up the chromium. One method involves injecting small amounts of food-grade ethanol - similar to hard liquor - into the aquifer. Bacteria feed off the ethanol and multiply. And those bacteria convert chromium-6 into chromium-3, a nontoxic form of the metal.
Alfalfa fields -
"The thing we like about that is, it gets to the problem down where it is," said Kevin Sullivan, the manager of PG&E's Hinkley cleanup project.
The company also pumps the tainted water onto alfalfa fields, where bacteria in the soil convert the chemical into chromium-3.
Sullivan said that the most-polluted wells, those near the compressor station, have shown a steep drop in chromium-6 concentrations, with levels falling more than 50 percent.
"We're making good progress on this plume," said Sullivan, who has spent seven years trying to clean Hinkley's water. "We're knocking out the core."
And yet, the plume may be moving.
Chromium-6 has been detected in wells several miles from the original plume. To PG&E, this is a sign of better testing - not spreading contamination. More wells are now being checked, and the hexavalent chromium within them may be naturally occurring, according to the company.
The government agency overseeing the cleanup, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, isn't entirely convinced. Some wells that have been tested for years, wells several miles north of the original plume, have shown rising chromium-6 levels, said Lauri Kemper, the board's assistant executive director.
"At least in some areas, we believe it's spread," she said.
Fully cleaning up the aquifer could take as long as 30 to 60 years, according to PG&E. In the meantime, the company is buying water for some homeowners and has installed water purifying systems for others. And for people within a mile of the expanded plume - as defined by the water board - the company will discuss buying their property, with PG&E basing its offers on home values in nearby towns such as Apple Valley.
Loss to homeowners -
But in some cases, PG&E's offers, which are not part of the original lawsuit settlement, represent a substantial loss to the homeowners. Barbara Ray lives a half-mile west of the compressor plant and wants to sell. But the company's last offer was less than she owes on the mortgage, she said.
"I told them it was ridiculous," said Ray, an elementary school teacher in Barstow who is not part of the new suit.
Although she still loves Hinkley's open landscape and the quiet of a small town, she doesn't want to stay and wait for PG&E to finish its cleanup. Five of her neighbors have already moved, and a sixth will soon.
"I'm 53," Ray said. "I may still be alive in 40 years, but I don't want to be here."