A California state survey has found that cancer rates are not disproportionately high in Hinkley, CA, the high desert ranching town where Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s (PG&E) natural gas transmission pipeline operations dumped toxic water that contaminated local water supplies, resulting in a $333 million settlement. The case inspired the movie “Erin Brockovich.”

The state study’s conclusion, however, has not eased the concerns of local residents, who are fearful that a miles-long underground plume of water tainted by levels of carcinogenic chromium 6 will spread to their water supplies. And it will not divert PG&E’s ongoing efforts to buy many of the properties where the owners feel threatened by the plume, pending a final cleanup solution by the San Francisco-based combination utility.

Last month PG&E began offering to buy up to 100 properties in Hinkley, about 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles. That move came as residents and the local board for state water regulators expressed new concerns about the utility’s handling of ongoing toxic mitigation work corralling the 2.5-by-1-mile plume of groundwater tainted with hexavalent chromium, a chemical previously used by PG&E in its pipeline operations in the Hinkley area (see Daily GPI, Nov. 30).

The number of cancers occurring in the census tract in which Hinkley is located for the 1996-2008 period was lower than would have been expected given the demographic characteristics, according to a California Cancer Registry researcher who did the survey for the state.

That won’t change the utility’s program to buy local properties, according to a report in Monday’s Los Angeles Times. The report indicated that the cancer survey study was done independent of PG&E.

A PG&E spokesperson said that aside from the latest study, the Hinkley residents are concerned, and that is why the utility is seeking to buy homes and surrounding property, and why it is committed to cleaning up the groundwater.

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, it legally discharged wastewater containing chromium into the ground for decades going back to the 1950s. More recently the utility acknowledged that the water contamination never should have happened and, since the problem was uncovered in 1987, PG&E contends that it has addressed the issue.

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