News / USA

Unhappy Ending for 'Erin Brockovich' Town

With enrollment dropping sharply over the last several years, officials plan to close Hinkley's only school next month. (VOA/C. Richard)
With enrollment dropping sharply over the last several years, officials plan to close Hinkley's only school next month. (VOA/C. Richard)
The first and second graders at the Hinkley School gather in pairs to practice their vocabulary words. It seems business as usual for now, but with so many families leaving town, the school is scheduled to close forever in June.

“We’re learning every day different areas the kids are moving to now and we’ve had many, many tears," said Sonja Pellerin, a teacher at the school. "Some people have lived here for generations, and it is turning families upside down.”

Hinkley is the California town made famous by the movie, Erin Brockovich. Twenty years ago, the California-based energy company Pacific Gas & Electric paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle legal claims by residents that PG&E had poisoned their well water by improperly dumping industrial waste into the ground. But that landmark legal victory, which was recounted in the Julia Roberts movie, was not the end of the story.

Since then, the plume of groundwater contaminated with toxic hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, has continued to spread. Now, Hinkley residents are leaving, and the town's future is uncertain. 
Teacher Sonja Pellerin with first and second-grade students at Hinkley School, which will soon close. (VOA/C. Richard)Teacher Sonja Pellerin with first and second-grade students at Hinkley School, which will soon close. (VOA/C. Richard)


But Hinkley School's future is not. With enrollment falling sharply for several years, education officials say they can’t afford to keep the school open.

Roberta Walker, who came to school to have lunch with her grandchildren, is angry that the PG&E energy company declined school officials’ request to buy the campus in order to keep it open.

“The school was the biggest, biggest part of the community," Walker 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 hundreds of Hinkley residents against PG&E for dumping cooling water from a natural gas compression plant south of town into unlined ponds. The waste, laden with toxic chromium 6, contaminated Hinkley’s groundwater wells, and the suit blamed the company for the increased incidence of cancer and autoimmune disease that followed.

The company settled. With her share of the money, Walker built new homes for herself and her daughters several kilometers from the contamination site. Now, chromium 6 has turned up in her well water again. Walker and her daughters are negotiating with PG&E to buy their homes.

“There’s still that little hope that the state will continue pushing along, but am I gonna do it?" she said. "And once I leave, and once I get out of here, am I going to? No. I’m not. I’m tired. I’m done.”

PG&E has already agreed to buy out a third of Hinkley’s residents. Company spokesman Jeff Smith has said repeatedly over the years that PG&E wants to make sure Hinkley survives. But that’s getting more complicated.

“We certainly remain committed to working with the people of Hinkley," Smith said. "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.”

At the national level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has spent the past 5 years studying new limits on chromium 6 in the environment. The EPA released a draft assessment in 2010, but that study is still under scientific review. The agency says it would be inappropriate to revise national drinking water standards until the process is complete.  

“Hinkley is an example of, even when you get a lot of attention, still we can be lacking, on a larger society level, standards that are protecting people,” said Renee Sharp, with the Environmental Working Group, a private research and advocacy organization.

Under state orders, PG&E is still trying to clean up its mess. It's been pumping millions of liters of contaminated water onto nearby alfalfa fields each year, to let microbes in the soil break down the poison. The company also is pumping ethanol into the ground to trigger a chemical reaction designed to neutralize the chromium. At a public meeting in October, project engineer Kevin Sullivan offered this encouragement.

“We’re making a lot of progress. We’ve cleaned up like 54 acres [22 hectares]," he said. "I understand that if it’s not your property, you know, [you’ll ask] ‘What have you done for me lately?’ But 54 acres is a lot of progress. ”

But it’s only a fraction of the environmental damage. Three years ago, state water quality officials estimated the contamination plume was a little more than four kilometers long. According to the most recent state report, it may now stretch more than 11 kilometers, and the state water quality board says it's spreading more than half a meter per day.

“It seems like the more we look, the more we’re finding, and it’s something that is scary for folks,” said the state water quality board's Lauri Kemper.

Frightening as the pollution is, Patsy Morris, 83, was determined to stay until recently. With Hinkley emptying out, she’s decided she has no choice but to leave, too.

“You get a bitterness about the whole thing," Morris said. "They’re just going to make this a big dustbowl, that’s all I can say about it. My friends are leaving, one way or another. It gets you, you know?”

PG&E estimates it take could another 40 years to clean up all of the chromium 6 pollution. That draws grim laughter from people in Hinkley. They predict that within 10 years, their community will be a ghost town.

You May Like

Video Indiana Controversy Points to Divergent Notions of Religious Freedom

Gay-marriage opponents are looking for ways to maintain their beliefs in face of changing culture, one writer says More

UNICEF Denies North Korean Measles Outbreak

Agency dismisses Russian media report after government, WHO assurances More

Turkey Seen Taking Harder Stance Against Militant Kurds

Stance comes as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being seen as moving closer to generals More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: tarqeb from: iq
May 08, 2013 9:15 AM
Perhaps the US Government could comment on the situation and what action is being taken or is it going to be ignored.mmmmm
scary stuff how the environment can be destroyed.
http://www.tarqeb.com

by: Silent Spring
May 06, 2013 11:59 PM
Perhaps the US Government could comment on the situation and what action is being taken or is it going to be ignored.mmmmm
scary stuff how the environment can be destroyed.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedomi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 01, 2015 1:41 AM
Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Welcome Buhari's Return to Power

Crowds of jubilant Nigerians nationwide have celebrated the return to power of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The retired army general won this year's presidential election with more than 2 million votes more than incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari's supporters hope he can strengthen the country's economy and security once he takes office in late May. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Gamma Ray Observatory to Open Soon in Mexico

American and Mexican scientists have completed construction of the world's largest gamma ray observatory, situated high in central Mexico’s Sierra Negra Mountain. The observatory's huge array of water-based detectors will soon start discovering secrets about black holes and supernovas. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More