Grist / EuToch / Getty Images / Alison Cassidy / Max Genecov

Still Toxic After All These Years

Nearly a quarter-century after winning millions from PG&E, the 'Erin Brockovich' town continues its fight for clean water.

on Jan 29, 2019

It was a sweltering, 117-degree July day in Hinkley, California. The surface of the 13-mile highway east to Barstow had become an asphalt skillet, and the town’s lone recreational feature, a children’s playscape, stood shining and unused like a monument to the lofty melting point of low-density polyethylene. Residents here appreciate the dry, desert landscape — that’s why many moved to Hinkley in the first place — but on days like this everyone takes refuge indoors, curtains drawn against the view of empty lots where neighbors’ houses once stood. Along the empty roads, thousands of pipe stubs — groundwater monitoring wells installed by Pacific Gas and Electric — began to look like air vents to some underground bunker where most everyone in town had retreated.

Despite the oppressive weather, a small group of residents had gathered at the community center for a workshop on bioremediation, basically how to remove chemical contamination from their land and water. These workshops are a regular occurrence here and broach topics like isotope analysis, well testing techniques, and the best ways to navigate the political machinations between oversight organizations. Hinkley-dwellers’ interest in these subjects is more based on survival than scientific curiosity; they want to make sure no one can pull the wool over their eyes again.

Hinkley is still best known as the “Erin Brockovich town.” In 1996 a group of residents famously won a massive direct-action arbitration against Pacific Gas and Electric with the help of Brockovich, a savvy single mom and Los Angeles legal clerk. The utility company was found liable for dumping hexavalent chromium (aka chromium-6), a carcinogen used to suppress rust formation at the Hinkley gas compressor station, into an unlined pond in the ’50s and ’60s. The chemical seeped into the town’s groundwater. PG&E hid the crisis and misled the community on the effects of that specific type of chromium and its possible connection to health problems in the town.

At the time it was settled, the Hinkley case was the largest payout ever awarded for a direct action lawsuit. Environmental advocates lauded the decision. And of course, the story became an Oscar-winning movie starring Julia Roberts.

For many people, that’s where the town’s story ends. They probably imagine that Hinkley is now peppered with big houses paid for by the plaintiffs’ hefty award. In reality, all that remains in town today is a few clusters of homes, a scrapyard, a community center, a dairy, and the infamous PG&E station that connects to the vast natural gas pipeline system.

To call Hinkley a ghost town would be misleading; ghost towns have abandoned buildings. But PG&E bought most of the homes in Hinkley on contaminated land and bulldozed them to avoid squatters. Successive rounds of real estate buyouts have reduced the population to less than half of what it was in 2012. Even with ongoing cleanup efforts, hexavalent chromium haunts the town — potential new residents know Hinkley’s history, and those still there fear the ever-present threat of further deception or mismanagement in the remediation process.

For those remaining in Hinkley, either by choice or by circumstance, to continue on, they need to know what’s going on with their water.


Just when you thought it was safe

Penny Harper moved part-time to Hinkley from Los Angeles in 1974, buying 10 acres of land as a “weekend retreat where there was no smog or traffic or people.” She would bring gallons of water back to L.A. from the well on her land. She was told the water didn’t have to be cleaned with the scores of various chemicals used at big city water treatment facilities. Once she found a decent job in the Hinkley area, she moved there full-time.

That was 1995 — a year before the settlement with PG&E.

“I had no idea that the water was contaminated,” said Harper.

Many of her neighbors were part of the class in the famous PG&E lawsuit. After the lawyers took their half or so of the $330 million arbitration settlement, the remaining money was distributed haphazardly among the 633 plaintiffs, who represented only about 30 percent of Hinkley’s residents at the time. However triumphant that judgment felt to the plaintiffs or, later on, for movie audiences, the money went to individuals, not the town. There was no certainty that Hinkley itself would survive.

An aerial view of Hinkley, California. Grist / Erthygy

Harper was studying nursing when she moved to Hinkley, and she says she is still interested in “health and body cleansing.” Now, that means she eats lots of leafy green vegetables and drinks water that she distills herself after running it through two reverse-osmosis machines.

Harper doesn’t live near Hinkley’s compressor station, but she has good reason to be cautious. Around 2010, another resident, Carmela Gonzalez, found an increase in chromium-6 in her water during a routine test. Subsequent scientific detective work led her to conclude that the original, underground chromium-6 plume had grown in the roughly 15 years after the PG&E settlement. The new plume stretched several miles from the original contamination site, affecting more than 100 additional property owners.

That discovery initiated a second round of fights with the utility, which launched additional cleanup efforts and offered buyouts to residents living within the new plume. Again, the town’s population shrunk.

The settlement might have worked out for some people, but it didn’t help the town. Sure, some people who received enough to offset the loss of their property values and pay for their chromium-related medical bills were able to move. Everyone else had to deal with the buyouts and the slow drain of the town where life is not just tenuous but vanishing.

As Hinkley resident Roberta Walker put it, “it gets to where you don’t even want to replace your freaking toilet seat because you might be selling it tomorrow. You just let everything go. We put everything on hold.”


The high price of staying put

Deciding whether to wait out the cleanup or take a buyout is a numbers game — residents have to weigh how much they have left on their mortgage, how much PG&E is offering, and whether they think the cleanup will take longer than their own lifetimes.

A PG&E feasibility study in 2014 found that eliminating nearly all the chromium from some of the hardest hit areas of Hinkley could take anywhere between 11 and 50 years. The 2015 Cleanup and Abatement Order — in which the local Lahontan Water Board laid out orders for PG&E after the discovery that the chromium plume had grown — said 80 percent of the cleanup should be completed by 2032. None of the residents or experts in Hinkley dared to mention concrete timelines for the cleanup. In the meantime, their property is deemed uninsurable wasteland.

PG&E offered to buy every house within and on the edge of the plume. The offers varied, but many took the utility’s deal, opting to cut their losses and move. As it stands, PG&E currently owns about two-thirds of all the property in town. The buyouts further sapped Hinkley of its future vitality, adding insult to the injury of the chromium-6 contamination.

“A lot of people sold in a panic,” said Barbara Ray, a Hinkley resident who commutes to Barstow for her job as a teacher. Some of Ray’s former neighbors tell her that they regret selling their homes; that they miss the small-town feel of Hinkley’s former community. Ray says PG&E offered her less than the cost of her mortgage for her home, so she declined — not that she entirely minds staying. “I love getting out of the city. My traffic sometimes is getting stuck behind a hay-wagon.”

Beyond the secondary plume’s radius, much of the water in Hinkley is clean of chromium-6 (though other naturally occurring contaminants like lead and uranium remain a concern). The chromium-6 plume only extends so far from the PG&E station, drifting north with flows coming off of the underground Mojave River. The current plume map represents the progression of 60 years of seepage — and more than 25 years of residents rallying to push it back.

The people of Hinkley have been instrumental in holding PG&E accountable for the cleanup, with neighbors acting as their own political agents and scientific experts. “I was the one who went door to door, knocking door to door telling people this is what I found,” said Roberta Walker. In the ’90s she collected much of the nuts-and-bolts information about the chromium-6 leak that was attributed to Erin Brockovich in the movie adaptation of the town’s story. (Walker figured so prominently in the story of Hinkley that, in its dramatization, she says her actions were spread over five characters.)

A children’s playscape, Hinkley’s lone remaining recreational feature. Grist / Max Genecov

Residents don’t know when the town will get back to having healthy chromium-6 levels, or if it’ll ever become economically stable again. The county tax assessor has devalued property wholesale throughout the town. For instance, Walker’s property went from $800,000 in 2012 to $32,000.

But one thing is certain: For Hinkley to endure, the people who remain must navigate a complex network of stakeholders — including working with the company who poisoned their water in the first place.


Bad blood and good water

When it comes to the ongoing water cleanup, Raudel Sanchez is the man in the middle. As the project manager of Project Navigator, the environmental management and consulting firm hired to act as the remediation plan’s independent review panel, Sanchez’s job was originally to interface with community members and the now-defunct community advisory committee, made up of residents and PG&E representatives. Sanchez arrived in 2012, but it was the 2015 Cleanup and Abatement Order — made in response to the plume’s growth — that formalized Project Navigator. Sanchez’s remit is to facilitate clarity more than sympathy.

After all, people in Hinkley don’t need a shoulder to cry on; they need resources.

Sanchez and his team write bimonthly informational newsletters for residents and hold quarterly meetings and ad hoc one-on-ones with community members. They analyze, present, and organize the community’s response to the Water Board’s orders, PG&E reports, U.S. Geological Survey analyses, and other technical materials related to the chromium-6 remediation. In short, there’s a lot for Project Navigator to navigate.

Prior to the introduction of Sanchez’s group, PG&E had its own representative that dealt with Hinkley residents. According to Daron Banks, Roberta Walker’s son, the PG&E rep was “a nice guy,” but his niceness seemed like a tactic to stymie complaints about the remediation’s progress.

As for Sanchez and his associates, their independent role is key to their success in town.

“I believe them when they tell me something — that’s not the way it is with everybody,” Penny Harper said of Project Navigator. “I think they made the lying and the two-facedness of PG&E more obvious.”

Years of bad blood between PG&E and Hinkley residents have nurtured a healthy cache of conspiracy theories, making combating misinformation and distrust a part of Sanchez’s job. At the July community workshop, Sanchez gently rebuked a resident who claimed that PG&E had been putting something into his well to attenuate chromium-6 levels.

Sanchez lives in Los Angeles but makes trips out to Hinkley multiple times a week, often with other team members. They operate out of a house given to them by a community advisory committee member who moved out of Hinkley. What used to be the living room is filled with scientific explanatory charts and dioramas used to illustrate answers to residents’ technical questions during Project Navigator’s office hours.

In July, Sanchez showed me a new diorama — a map showing the age of water in various wells at two depths — to determine the spread of the chromium-6 plume. The map showed that unusual radioactive isotopes of elements, which were created by nuclear tests in the 1940s, could be used as markers to determine whether water at various sites came from the same source. Since rare isotopes didn’t enter the atmosphere until the 1950s — coinciding with the beginning of the chromium-6 seepage — water and therefore chromium in those areas without them would have predated PG&E’s pollution. Other chemical tracers were able to date other water samples to more recent decades.

It sounds technical, but residents want the same information that scientists working in the area would have. The Water Board established the independent review panel “to effectively participate in evaluating and understanding the technical aspects of cleanup actions.” Sanchez says his explanations of the science are necessary to keep Hinkley residents informed.

PG&E has held information sessions and tours of cleanup facilities for Hinkley residents, but it is notoriously tight-lipped with outsiders. PG&E declined inquiries for interviews and information requests for this article, responding only with the following emailed statement:

“We are committed to cleaning up the environment, protecting public health and safety, and working with the community to restore the land and water quality in Hinkley. We are working under the direction of the Lahontan Water Board (Water Board) to investigate and clean up groundwater affected by hexavalent chromium from historical operations at our Hinkley facility, and we are committed to completing the cleanup at Hinkley as quickly as possible. We have made significant progress and continue to work under the Water Board’s oversight to better define, manage and clean up the plume. We will remain focused on these efforts until the job is done.”


Putting things right

Getting the job done, as PG&E puts it, isn’t easy. Here’s how the cleanup works: Pumps dot the low-concentration outskirts of the chromium-6 plume, taking water from these areas to drip irrigate the fields of distractingly green alfalfa that make up a large portion of what used to be Hinkley. Via natural biochemical processes, the alfalfa plants convert chromium-6 to the nutrient chromium-3. This agricultural technique keeps the chromium-6 plume from spreading or migrating.

At higher chromium-6 concentrations, so-called “in situ reactive zones” (IRZ) do the work. The IRZ pumps a mild water-ethanol mixture into the ground to feed naturally occurring microbes in the groundwater that consume the ethanol, lower the pH of the water, and allow chromium-6 to become the nutrient chromium-3 via a reduction reaction. No chromium-6 is actually removed from the water.

Found around the world, IRZ has been used full-scale in Hinkley since 2006. There are hundreds of wells around the compressor station, where chromium-6 levels still peak at over one thousand parts per billion, 100 times the state’s maximum contaminant level for the chemical compound.

Though the scale of the contamination is unprecedented for its type, the actual remediation technology that PG&E employs is pretty standard. It’s been effective at confining the plume to its current area and, over several decades, aims to reduce much of the chromium-6 to natural levels.

But there’s some debate as to what constitutes “natural levels” for the area. A PG&E study estimated Hinkley’s background level of chromium-6 (had the town not been contaminated by the compressor plant) to be 3.1 ppb. But many residents and some independent scientists disputed that number. They felt the study was too minor in scope to apply to a survey of several square miles. One scientist described the assessment as “the equivalent of what you would do for a gas station.”

But even a 3.1 ppb target could be a best-case scenario. The Water Board could also instruct PG&E to keep cleaning until they hit California’s former standard for chromium-6, a much higher 10 ppb. (That state standard was removed in 2017 after a judge ruled that the Department of Public Health had not considered whether it would be economically possible for local water agencies to comply.) Either way, residents have serious questions about the effort that they say the utility is either unable or unwilling to answer.

Penny Harper says she’ll stay in Hinkley “no matter what.” Grist / Max Genecov

And there is another concern, though one that seems far off, at the moment: No one is sure what will happen once the requirements the Water Board sets are met, and the IRZ pumps are turned off. Once the incredibly high concentrations of chromium-6 found near the compressor station are converted into chromium-3, it’s not clear they’ll stay that way. Once the pH settles, it could revert to its toxic state.

When Hinkley residents went looking for answers, they were told the science existed to find out, but no one had done those experiments yet. So the townspeople set out to find a scientist.


We won’t take no for an answer

If Hollywood ever makes a sequel to Erin Brockovich, it might be about how the town of Hinkley recruited a world-renowned United States Geological Survey hydrologist to its side.

To keep the town alive, Hinkley residents needed to find answers — to the timeline of the remediation, to the effectiveness of the chromium-6 to chromium-3 conversion, to the town’s survival. So they scoured relevant scientific papers and came upon the work of John Izbicki.

Izbicki was the perfect person to answer their questions — he had worked on chromium levels in groundwater throughout the Mojave Desert. Daron Banks heard someone at a community board meeting call him “the God of water.” So Hinkley residents began contacting him at “six-month, eight-month intervals,” he says, asking him questions about chromium. After a couple years of such correspondence, Izbicki offered to come out himself to explain “a few things that should be done.”

He’s been on board to help ever since.

By Izbicki’s visit in 2012, he says it was already clear that PG&E’s background study — the one that had determined the background levels of chromium-6 to be 3.1 ppb — “had been a failure.” While he noted that the data taken by the utility’s scientists was top quality, Izbicki disagreed with the company’s interpretation of the results.

PG&E is not “always happy when I tell them that [their work] is not correct,” he said.

In the residents’ eyes, Izbicki has one primary goal: to put a definitive number on the natural, “baseline” state of chromium-6 in the Hinkley Valley. They hope that number will be unimpeachable, not just to them, but to the Water Board.

With so much riding on Izbicki’s research, he’s become a kind of local celebrity. “Next to my dad, I don’t think there’s another man I admire more,” Banks said.

The final report, which may restart and reorient the sociopolitical conversation about Hinkley, could come out as soon as summer 2019. The baseline concentration Izbicki arrives at will certainly be released by early 2020.

Izbicki recognizes Hinkley residents’ knowledge of water science and investment in their cause. “I never cease to be amazed at the competence of the questions that they ask,” he said. “Many of them are quite insightful and reflect years of what would be self-taught learning and dealing with issues like this.”

Still, no matter what Izbicki finds, there is fear that it is too late for Hinkley. The population is aging. Few people are moving in, and those who do chalk it up to financial necessity. Clear paths to stability are scarce.

For as much hope as Daron Banks has in Izbicki, he is extremely pessimistic about Hinkley. He figures the town will never get back to what it was. But he still holds out for justice. If PG&E isn’t held accountable, “all that will be left is the dairy and the alfalfa field,” he said.

Others aren’t ready to give up just yet. They feel they’ve worked too hard and beaten too many odds already. Even if the water is contaminated, their optimism is not. They rest their hopes on potential upgrades, like the still-functional-but-shuttered elementary school becoming an agricultural school, or a gas service station opening up on the newly renovated exit on the highway southwest to Lancaster.

All the uncertainty surrounding the cleanup — what baseline target the cleanup should use, how many years it will take to get there — is part of what many residents feel has prevented Hinkley from recovering. And now that PG&E has declared bankruptcy over last year’s California wildfires, it is unclear how that might also affect the terms of the Cleanup and Abatement Order in Hinkley. (A legal team pushing to keep PG&E from being allowed to declare bankruptcy includes Erin Brockovich.)

Izbicki doesn’t have all the answers, but he believes that providing at least some concrete details about the scope of the remediation “may be enough to revive parts of the community,” he said.

Assuming Izbicki’s work is accepted by PG&E and a concrete goal and timeline are set for the cleanup efforts, loyalists here think they can drum up local interest in the town. Maybe new folks will move in, they say. Or land values will be reassessed and their property will be worth something again.

It wouldn’t exactly be a Hollywood ending, but it would be better than no ending at all.

No matter what happens, Penny Harper is planning to ride out the remediation, even if it lasts the rest of her life. She says she will keep growing her vegetables for herself and for others, selling them at the monthly community breakfasts. She’s excited about the new pastor at the church.

“I figure I really like it where I am,” Harper said.