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

Turkey's Erdogan: Women Not Equal to Men

Speaking at conference in Istanbul, President Erdogan says Islam has defined a position for women: motherhood More

Ahead of SAARC Summit, Subdued Expectations

Some regional analysts say distrust between Pakistani, Indian officials has slowed SAARC's progress over the year More

Philippines Leery of Development on Reef Reclamation in S. China Sea

Chinese land reclamation projects in area have been ongoing for years, but new satellite imagery reportedly shows China’s massive construction project 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.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid