Nearly 20 years ago, the California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle legal claims. The settlement, made famous by the movie "Erin Brockovich," stemmed from a suit that the utility contaminated the groundwater in the Mojave Desert community of Hinkley.
It was the largest settlement ever paid in a direct action lawsuit in U.S. history, but since that David and Goliath triumph, a plume of groundwater contaminated with toxic chromium-6 has continued to spread, and the town is emptying. For the California Report, Chris Richard has the story.
Sonja Pellerin’s first- and second-grade classroom at Hinkley Elementary School is a lively and brightly colored place. Each time Pellerin gives an instruction to the class, she punctuates the instruction by clapping her hands. And the children, leaning forward eagerly, their eyes on Pellerin’s face, clap along with her.
For a recent vocabulary lesson, it was business as usual.
“Class, please describe to your partner what a downpour would look like,” Pellerin said, her voice and face cheerful.
She clapped her hands. “Switch! Go!”
The children, absorbed in the lesson, clapped in response and turned to their partners, chattering. That gave Pellerin a moment to step away from the front of the class. As she did, her face grew grave.
“We’re learning every day different areas the kids are moving to now and we’ve had many, many tears,” she said. “Some people have lived here for generations, and it is turning families upside down."
With enrollment falling sharply for several years, Barstow Unified School District trustees say they can’t afford to keep the Hinkley School open on their own. But for the rest of the academic year, the Hinkley School will continue to be a community gathering place. Once a month, the school invites families to share lunch with their children. Roberta Walker came here recently to be with her grandchildren. She’s angry that PG&E refused a district request to buy the Hinkley School in order to keep it open.
“The school was the biggest, biggest part of the community," she said. "And they refused to admit that they were at fault for the decline in enrollment."
In the 1990s, Walker was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit by residents alleging that PG&E had dumped cooling water from a natural gas compression plant south of town into unlined ponds. The waste, laden with toxic chromium-6, contaminated Hinkley’s wells, and the suit blamed the company for widespread cancer and autoimmune disease. The company paid $333 million to settle the case. Much of the money went to attorneys, with the balance divided among 600 plaintiffs.
With her share of the money, Walker built new homes for herself and her daughters about four miles north of the compression plant. She believed that, under a state cleanup order, PG&E would contain the poison. Now, chromium-6 has turned up in her water again. Walker and her daughters are negotiating sale terms with the company.
“There’s still that little hope that the state will continue pushing along, but am I gonna do it? And once I leave, and once I get out of here, am I going to?” she said. “No. I’m not. I’m tired. I’m done."
PG&E already has agreed to buy out a third of Hinkley’s residents. And the company has spent some $700 million trying to clean up its mess. That has included pumping millions of gallons of water a year and spreading it on fields to let microbes break down the poison. The company is also pumping ethanol into the ground to trigger a chemical reaction that neutralizes the chromium. At a public meeting in October, project engineer Kevin Sullivan tried to offer encouragement.
“We’re making a lot of progress,” he said. “We’ve cleaned up like 54 acres. Now, I know that doesn’t. … I, I, believe me, I understand that if it’s not your property, you know, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ But 54 acres is a lot of progress."
It’s only a fraction of the environmental damage. Three years ago, state water quality officials estimated the contamination plume at a little more than 2 1/2 miles long. According to the most recent state report, it might now be more than 7 miles long, and spreading at 2 feet per day.
“It seems like the more we look, the more we’re finding, and it’s something that is, um, is scary for folks,” said Lauri Kemper, assistant executive officer of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency overseeing cleanup efforts.
Frightening as the pollution is, until recently 83-year-old Patsy Morris was determined to stay. She remembered the Mulberry Street neighborhood of her youth, when the houses had green lawns and her children played up and down the block.
Today, the few neighbors who remain have turned off their wells for fear of the chromium. The grass is gone. Most houses are boarded up, and Morris tries to resign herself to leaving.
“You get a bitterness about the whole thing. They’re just going to make this a big dust bowl, that’s all I can say about it,” Morris said “My friends are leaving, one way or another. It gets you, you know?”
PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith has said repeatedly over the years that the company wants to make sure Hinkley survives. But that’s getting more complicated.
“We certainly remain committed to working with the people of Hinkley. If their preference is to have their property purchased and to depart from the community, we want to make sure we have that option available to them as well,” he said.
In a community so small, one loss flows into another. Hinkley is losing its fire department, too. Four of the department’s six members are negotiating the sale of their homes to PG&E, including Fire Capt. Julie Heggenberger.
Her mother was the town nurse. Her father founded the volunteer fire department. By contrast, Heggenberger’s husband moved repeatedly as a child.
“By the time we got married, he was like, ‘I never want to leave. I don’t want to do that!’ ” she said.
Heggenberger’s eyes filled with tears. She swallowed hard, struggling to speak clearly.
“’I want to raise our children, have them grow up in the same school, live in the same house.’”
But both of Heggenberger’s parents died of diseases she blames on the contaminated water. A brother is seriously ill. She herself has Crohn’s disease. Heggenberger and her husband feel that for their children’s safety, they have no choice but to move away. Still, leaving this place he came to call home is very hard for her husband.
“He never had that. And it’s what I had,” she said. “And he’s seen it was what made me a person in the community. And, um, we’re not going to have that.”
PG&E estimates it take could another 40 years to get rid of the pollution. That draws grim laughter from people in Hinkley. They predict their community will be a ghost town in less than 10 years.
See more from The California Report here.