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Culture Clash: PG&E Makes Historic Deal With AZ Tribe

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. wrote a new chapter in the energy industry's continuing clashes with Native American tribes throughout the West on Thursday when its CEO traveled to the Arizona town of Topock on the Colorado River, which forms the border with California, to solidify an agreement and make a public apology to the Fort Mojave Tribe.

In response, the Indians have dropped a lawsuit that they had filed in a California Superior Court in Sacramento regarding the utility's building of a natural gas pipeline-related water treatment plant on lands the tribe considers sacred.

PG&E utility CEO Thomas King expressed regret and apologized to the head of the Fort Mojave Tribe for not understanding that the surrounding lands, known as the Topock Maze, were sacred to the tribe. The utility had drilled test wells and installed a water treatment plant on the land to prevent a toxin from leaching into the Colorado River.

The agreement among tribe, state and utility officials specifically called for PG&E's public apology. Indian and California environmental protection officials lauded PG&E for its handling of the situation, according to a front-page news report on Thursday's ceremonies in the Los Angeles Times.

Early last year California environmental officials asked PG&E. to step up its efforts to keep toxin-laced groundwater from pipeline operations from seeping into the nearby Colorado River, which is a major source of drinking water for 18 million people in Southern California. Tainted groundwater had been detected in a well within 60 feet of the river (see Daily/GPI, Feb, 28, 2005).

The toxin is hexavalent chromium, or "chromium 6," which was used by the PG&E utility in the 1950 and '60s at a natural gas pipeline compressor station near Topock. As they have maintained since the issue was made public nearly three years ago, state officials report that no traces of the toxin have been found in the nearby river water. Since April 2004, the utility has employed a larger pump to draw chromium 6-tainted groundwater out of the desert floor, preventing it from reaching the river waters.

The latest agreement allows the Indians and the utility to collaborate to protect the river, but do it without harming what the Fort Mojave Indians consider their cultural and spiritual well-being, both of which are closely tied to the surrounding Topock Maze. To date, the utility has publicly said that over the years it has spend tens of millions of dollars to mitigate the effects of dumping chromium 6 in the ground during an 18-year period from 1951 to 1969.

PG&E utility operators near the border are now required to test ground water at selected wells weekly, under mandates from the state environmental officials. The utility also is now required to increase pumping maximum capacity of the treatment system and install an additional well through which more wastewater can be extracted.

Chromium 6 is the toxic chemical that made "Erin Brockovich," the woman and the motion picture, famous five years ago, relating to some of PG&E's utility natural gas transmission operations in the Mojave Desert, about 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Since 2004, PG&E's removal program took 20,000 gallons of groundwater daily from three extraction wells at Topock, trucking the contaminated water away to a toxic waste disposal site. State officials at that time were satisfied the pumping would move the chromium 6-tainted groundwater away from the river supplies.

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