In the small high desert community of Hinkley, CA, about 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles, that inspired multi-million dollar utility settlements and a major motion picture, residents and the local board for state water regulators are expressing concerns about Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s (PG&E) handling of ongoing toxic mitigation work.

The issue, which inspired the Academy Award-winning 2000 film, "Erin Brockovich," resurfaced in a front page Los Angeles Times report Monday that focused on the combination utility's ongoing work to contain an underground plume of contaminated water tied to PG&E natural gas transmission pipeline operations more than half a century ago.

Nervous residents that once were part of a $333 million settlement with PG&E and the state's Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board are raising concerns about the plume getting beyond perimeters established by the utility's clean up group.

While not calling the LA Times' report inaccurate, a PG&E spokesperson said variations in plumes, particularly in areas such as the high desert in Southern California, where there are seasonal variations in water levels and flows, "are not uncommon.

"Anytime there is any movement of the plume, we obviously take that very seriously and immediately react to it because the health and safety of the community is very serious to us."

While the newspaper's characterization of the clean-up work is that PG&E is "under investigation" by the regional water board, the utility spokesperson and the onsite utility project manager stressed that everything was under control. Nevertheless, a regional water board official was quoted by the Times as saying, "we definitely know there are violations and that what PG&E is doing right now to contain the plume is not enough."

The PG&E spokesperson said the utility would "certainly concur, as the LA Times article said, there is more to be done in order to get to a final remedy" for the situation that spans decades.

Two years ago, PG&E made its final settlement payment of $20 million to conclude the last of a series of lawsuits stemming from water poisoning from hexavalent chromium ("chromium 6") linked to its natural gas transmission pipeline operations in the Mojave Desert (see Daily GPI, April 7, 2008). The final settlement involved claims that 104 people had been exposed to water containing chromium 6, a possible carcinogen, used in PG&E gas pipeline system compressor operations moving supplies from the California-Arizona border to Northern California.

Two previous settlements totaled $628 million during the past 12 years. The first agreement in 1996 for $333 million inspired the "Erin Brockovich" movie four years later. A second major settlement for $295 million was reached in 2006 (see Daily GPI, Feb. 7, 2006).

Lawsuits emerged in the early 1990s based on the development of tumors and other health problems among many local residents. By PG&E's own admission, the utility legally discharged wastewater containing chromium into the ground decades earlier. The utility has publicly acknowledged that the water contamination never should have happened and, in 1987, when PG&E discovered what had happened, it contends that it "acted immediately" to address the problem.

However, the movie and the long history have placed PG&E in a continuing adversarial role with the community. Even the real-life Brockovich told the Times that she plans to go back to Hinkley to "knock on doors, examine water and soil test results and then decide how to proceed."

In the meantime, PG&E's spokesperson said the utility is doing everything it can to contain the plume, and to get to a final remedy that will garner the regional water board's approval for various approaches it has recommended. The utility is hoping the water board will give that approval by the end of the year, but at this point there is no timetable or target date for completing the clean up that has gone on for years now.

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