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)
TEXT SIZE - +
— 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

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Open Source Seeds Hit the Market, Raise Awareness

First open source seeds include 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid