Photo: Michael Cervin / Planet Experts
Perhaps Julia Roberts could be forgiven when she won the Academy Award for her performance in the Oscar-wining movie Erin Brockovich and forgot to thank the real Erin Brockovich. But it is telling that she never once mentioned the residents of Hinkley, California, a nothing-much-of-a-town located in the Mojave Desert off State Highway 58. The chemical chromium-6 was found in their water supply and many of the residents had suffered serious medical conditions for decades. But now the pollution is waning and the valley is slowly on the mend.
A Brief History
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) built a facility called the Hinkley Compressor Station in Hinkley, part of a natural gas pipeline which connected to the San Francisco Bay Area. Between 1952 and 1966 PG&E used hexavalent chromium, more commonly referred to as chromium-6 or chrom-6, to fight corrosion for the working parts of their facility. There’s nothing nefarious about that. In fact, it’s been common for industrial plants to do this for a long time.
Water dissolved the chrom-6 off the working pipes and that toxic wastewater was discharged directly into unlined ponds at the site used to hold the bad water in place. Some of the contaminated wastewater, however, percolated into the groundwater underneath Hinkley, affecting an area approximately two miles long and nearly a mile wide. The contamination levels were 10 times greater than the maximum amount allowed by law at the time.
A few notes on chromium-6:
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified chrom-6 as, “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” Their document, “Toxicological Review of Hexavalent Chromium” states that there is “evidence of an association between oral exposure to hexavalent chromium and stomach cancer in humans.” Additionally, the EPA report added this: “Available evidence indicates that chromium interacts with DNA, resulting in DNA damage and mutagenesis. Hexavalent chromium is commonly discharged from steel and pulp mills as well as metal-plating and leather-tanning facilities. It can also pollute water through erosion of soil and rock.”
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) states: “Workers who breathe hexavalent chromium compounds at their jobs for many years may be at increased risk of developing lung cancer. Irritation or damage to the eyes and skin can occur if hexavalent chromium contacts these organs in high concentrations or for a prolonged period of time.”
- National Toxicology Program has said that chrom-6 in drinking water shows “clear evidence of carcinogenic activity.”
With tainted groundwater, the families that bathed in, drank and cooked with their municipal water became sick. A lawsuit was filed and the case was eventually settled in 1996 for $333 million – a milestone settlement at that time. PG&E in the arbitration settlement with the residents of Hinkley admitted no wrongdoing, though they admit it now, decades later.
In June 2012 a federal judge ordered that PG&E supply in-home water filtration systems and/or new wells to be drilled for the residents of Hinkley. But the court also ordered that PG&E clean up the mess, meaning the toxic plume that permeated the Hinkley Valley. Erin Brockovich helped shine a light on the situation, but what followed was also a story, one that gets little attention.
It’s one thing to watch a two-hour movie about a complex subject and think you know everything; it’s another to comprehend water contamination and find out exactly how you clean up a massive plume of toxic material. Most importantly, it’s crucial to get the facts straight. I made an appointment to meet with Jeff Smith, PG&E Spokesman, and Jeff McCarthy, Hinkley Site Manager, for a tour of the cleanup facilities. The polluted area is no longer two miles long and a mile wide — now it is assumed to be seven miles long and three miles wide.
Prior to my meeting with PG&E, I drove through this desolate town to get a feel for how much damage has been done. In early 2012, Hinkley’s population stood at 1,900. Today it is about 1,000 souls. Hinkley was never a city per se, but more an aggregate collection of farmlands, desert lovers and people who craved the isolation of a small community. Yes, there was a school, fire department, community center, gas station and market, and a few roadside restaurants, most of which are all gone. But it was never a city in the sense of what we think cities should be – it was an outlier.
A brief drive through the paved and unpaved streets is like driving onto the film set of some apocalyptic movie. Houses are fenced off, some in partial to near total disrepair, some abandoned, some tagged and some being razed as part of PG&E’s plan to buy back homes and then bulldoze them. As I drove down Mulberry Avenue, it was a complete paradox. On one side of the street, all the houses were gone. I counted 13 mailboxes where homes once stood and families once lived, a slow depressing parade of empty addresses. The other side of the street was still inhabited – it is a weird and unsettling street. There are still signs of life in Hinkley of course: shiny cars parked in driveways, green lawns and front yards replete with plant life, children’s toys fading under the relentless desert sun. Perhaps in an ironic sign of hope, a bright yellow boat gleams in someone’s front yard.
PG&E has spent more than $700 million thus far cleaning up the toxic mess, but what does that look like exactly? To begin with, it’s crucial to understand that hexavalent chromium, arsenic, uranium, polonium-210 and many other radioactive, toxic and otherwise harmful materials reside under our feet, occurring naturally as part of a soil degradation chain. The idea that chrom-6 in the groundwater is solely PG&E’s doing is wrong; it existed long before PG&E ever came to Hinkley. That it is at such high levels is, admittedly, PG&E’s doing.
The unlined ponds near the compressor station were just that: graded sections of earth where toxic waste was dumped. Believe it or not, this was standard practice at the time. It seems stunningly myopic to us now, but the military, industry and other businesses routinely dumped chemicals into the ground. I understand that in our day and age we want to blame someone for this. Frankly, so do I. But it was conventional wisdom of that era, just like smoking was considered good for you in the 1950s.
Bear in mind that EPA was only formed in 1970. Prior to that there was pretty much a Wild West mentality – anything goes as long as no one knows about it and dumping hazardous material into the earth, dry river beds or any out-of-the-way piece of land simply was not considered a risk to human health because many of these dumping areas were not typically near large population centers. Shortsighted? Absolutely. If you need further reasons to doubt our environmental past just consider there are currently 1,844 Superfund sites — pieces of land the EPA has identified as contaminated by hazardous waste — in the U.S.
In Hinkley, the chrom-6 entered the ground from the compressor station and migrated into a two-layered aquifer underneath the Hinkley Valley. “The water table runs 100 to 120 feet down depending on where you stand,” Jeff McCarthy told me on a warm March day. “This is a complex aquifer with a layer of clay in the middle making for an upper and lower aquifer.”
PG&E is working on cleaning up the chrom-6 to “background” levels, meaning the amount of chrom-6 that existed naturally in the soil before PG&E was ever here. Though the current plume is certainly large, the levels of chrom-6 vary widely in this affected area. In California, and as a result of the Hinkley situation, the state has proposed a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 10 PPB, but the federal standard is 100 PPB for total chromium, both 3 and 6. Of both kinds of chromium, chrom-6 is the soluble form and both are widespread, though chrom-3 poses no threat to human health.
Desert-type aquifers are more prone to migrating water and toxins given the porous nature of sand as opposed to rock. If chrom-6 was allowed into an unlined pond in Iowa, for example, McCarthy tells me it might have 30 feet of organic soil to pass through to get to any ground water. McCarthy suggests this 30-foot natural filter helps “clean” the water and the toxicity dissipates as it works through the soil, not that it is ever fully removed. Western states are not so inclined; sand allows anything liquid to pass through quickly. “The sand doesn’t give it any resonance time,” McCarthy says.
To accomplish remediation of chrom-6 there is a two-pronged approach: ethanol injections and an organic agricultural component. Jeff Smith, PG&E’s External Communications Manager, gives me the analogy of wringing out a wet sponge. “The ethanol is great at getting the large concentrations of water out, but you’re left with a damp sponge. The agricultural units get it all the way dry.”
We drove to their ethanol facility, a small gated area near monitoring and injection wells, which are placed deep into the dry earth. “The ethanol injection is very effective at dealing with the center of the contamination (currently around 300 PPM) and bringing it down to levels of 20-30 PPM,” says McCarthy. This is denatured, 100 proof ethanol and it neutralizes the chrom-6. Using a needle valve to draw water out it is amended with 7 8 percent alcohol, three times a week, and then it’s put back into the ground. There are three lines of wells the water passes through and wells are screened at 10-foot intervals under the earth.
In total, there are 714 monitoring wells, 63 injection wells, 36 extraction wells and seven freshwater injection wells, constantly churning the water beneath my feet as I stand on the dry earth in Hinkley. None of this is visible. This process will keep up for another 40 years. Yes, 40 years – and they have already been at it for over a decade. Though much of the chrom-6 is removed, the PPB near the ethanol plant is still around 50.
Moving south, towards the compressor station, it gets higher and at ground zero, the compressor station itself, it has been measured between 4,000 – 7,300 PPB. Those are astounding numbers. As the water fans out across the valley and dissipates through the aquifer, the 236 acres of agriculture finishes off the remaining minute traces of chrom-6 in the water. PG&E has planted alfalfa, Italian rye, winter wheat, and sudangrass and the organics from the crops convert the chrom-6, as it precipitates out, as chrom-3.
“Given the agricultural history in Hinkley there’s a kind of elegance to bringing back the roots of farming,” Smith says. Yes, that sounds nice, but I doubt anyone concerns themselves with poetic justice at this point. Once harvested, the crops then go to local farmers as feed for their cattle. The processes are impressive, and they are massive in scope. And they are working. Still, you can understand why people in Hinkley have fled. Fears over their water are still prevalent.
However, there is progress and the earth has a stunning ability to heal itself, albeit slowly and with innumerable casualties along the way. Yes, it is a long journey back, but the good news is that contaminated soil and water can be, and is, getting cleaned and restored. Our planet can heal itself and we can help it along. Obviously, our water source and supply is sensitive and needs to be safeguarded. Awareness needs to be raised and companies, farms and corporations large and small, as well as individuals, need to be held accountable for anything they put into our ground water.
The Hinkley story is a sad saga and one that reminds everyone that water needs to be protected and monitored constantly. That the chrom-6 migrated seven miles out from its point of origin tells us what we already know: water will go where it will and toxins are no respecters of persons. That it can be cleaned is a product of science and nature. That there is a long view to hope for the restoration of the Hinkley Valley is a uniquely human thing.