California Wasteland: Erin Brockovich Still Fighting for Neighbors Over Contaminated Drinking Water

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PG&E is quick to point out that the public health goal is not an enforceable standard and that chromium-6 is currently regulated in California under the total chromium standard of 50 parts per billion. Total chromium levels measure not just chromium-6, but also chromium-3, the good kind of chromium that is sometimes used as a nutritional supplement.

Walker, along with about 250 households in the area, receives free bottled water from PG&E even though PG&E says that the well water is safe to drink.

"We're very concerned about protecting the health of the community at Hinkley," said PG&E Senior Vice President Des Bell. "No one in Hinkley is drinking water that doesn't meet the state water quality standard, but we certainly have an environmental groundwater cleanup issue to deal with."

By state law, the California Department of Public Health must set a new water standard as close to the public health goal as economically and technically feasible, but that process may take a number of months or even years. The current standard was set in 1977.

At a water board meeting in June open to the community, PG&E Project Manager Kevin Sullivan explained why PG&E says the cleanup could take another 40 years.

"It's sort of like wringing a sponge to get the last little bit of soap out," Sullivan said. "It takes a little bit to get soap into a sponge. You've got to wring it time and time and time again to get the last bits out."

In a "Nightline" interview, Bell explained why it took nearly a decade after the 1996 settlement for the current remediation efforts to get underway.

"The challenge is that, with this sort of project, there's no playbook in terms of how you approach this sort of remediation effort," Bell said. "We have had to go through an exhaustive process under the oversight of the regulator, to test the different methods."

The clean-up has already been going on so long that Amber Baca, 24, barely remembers the original settlement 15 years ago. But now the mother of two young children says she thinks her family's health problems have been caused by PG&E. Baca says her 4-year-old daughter has nosebleeds, her 5-year-old son gets rashes and has diabetes, and that she herself had a miscarriage and has cysts on her ovaries.

"They're working to clean up the water, but it's too late for us," Baca said. "It's too late for my family and for my son."

While Brockovich is disappointed about the current situation in Hinkley, she says the movie did create attention around issues of contamination. And she says today, people all over the world -- she says by the tens of thousands -- now email her to tell her about what they suspect are water contamination issues in their communities.

"I don't believe that the world is that crazy that they have nothing to better to do with their time than send me emails and tell me these outlandish stories," Brockovich said. "So I've started to plot the communities that have come to me on a map."

Book cover for Erin Brockovich's "Hot Water." Credit: Vanguard Press

She says she has identified 1,700 communities in the U.S. alone where residents are concerned about environmental contamination. These days Brockovich is also busy writing a fiction series based on real cases that she calls "cause novels." But her main cause is still getting to know the people in struggling communities who reach out to her as an environmental folk hero.

"You email Erin, she emails you back," said Barbara Post of Carson, Calif.

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