Cynthia McFadden's 1996 Report on Town Plagued With Contaminated Water

ABC's Cynthia McFadden reports on a Calif. town plagued with contaminated water.
3:00 | 12/08/11

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Transcript for Cynthia McFadden's 1996 Report on Town Plagued With Contaminated Water
This story who has never heard before a story about family and neighbors the country's largest public utility and broken trust. For years of -- serene desert town in Southern California parents unknowingly expose their children to a poison. A few people -- the giant utility knew it was there but did nothing to warn the community. And as Cynthia McFadden reports the only thing more shocking than the contamination. Was the discovery that -- have all been kept secret. For more than twenty years. It was a perfect -- three children. Everything we scream and rolling alfalfa fields that surrounded him. Theories. -- from American apple pie. 25 years ago Kathie -- -- Bruce moved with their three small sons to Hinckley California. A tiny speck of the town on the edge of the Mojave Desert. We wanted them to experience. The country life. -- -- That dream. -- -- And good night me. It started with the water a strange yellowish Green. Before long they say it was the animals. Through computer. The animals would -- didn't -- here. We thought well maybe it's just this particular animal. And then after awhile we can't find -- we -- that particular animal of every kind of -- is up. And it wasn't just the Bruce's animals unknown to them their neighbors say they were having problems to chickens dead from cancer calves born deformed. The bones of deformed -- buried here at what was once a dairy. Nature seem to have gone does that work soon they says he -- the children. I remember cracks me and I it would either be -- -- believed our lady X ore body aches. Unbelievable amounts -- those things that we had and Mark Walker grew up across the street from the Bruce's playing in the water and breed in the dusty air. And like a skin. -- a film roll my -- my brother's. Also -- that. Hundreds of people now say they were having health problems too but nobody discussed them and nobody saw a pattern. And certainly no one suspected that their biggest neighbor just a mile down the road to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company might have something to do with it. PG&E is the world's largest public utility with assets that rival many countries. Hinckley plant is part of the natural gas pipeline that provides most of the gas used in central and northern California. What the people living around here didn't know is that the water they were drinking bathing in and letting their children play again was contaminated bond PG -- With a dangerous chemical. Chromium six cancer causing and. Deadly there is good chromium and bad chromium. Good chromium is a diet supplement bad chromium chromium six is one of only thirty chemicals known to cause cancer. According to the US public health service at certain levels chromium six can cause diseases of virtually every organ in the body. That Hinckley chromium six was mixed with water as an anti corrosive. It was dumped in ponds then it seeped into the water supply. He climbed trees face I have been playing. If there was a -- -- -- women. You know they found Hinckley is the desert town windy and hot. Water matters here like most of the kids -- Bruce boys spent the days playing outside in the water and dust. During wind storms I would put when -- -- from from there you know with mouth to keep the film. Out of their lungs. It's the worst -- Wet towels that you now know you were soaking chromium six current. PG -- own internal documents obtained by prime time -- of accompanying militant contaminated soil and water and hid that fact for 22 years. In 1965. Company officials first discovered they had contaminated -- -- well with 300 times the legal limit of chromium six. The company discovered other wells were contaminated too. They stopped using chromium and began a secret program to treat the water. But rather than warn anyone. The company worried that it will be quote extremely difficult to keep fire intended treatment confidential. The company tried to clean up the water without success until 1972. And then just stopped. Still warning no one. About this time the -- move to Hinckley and aware that there water was contaminated. He can be -- -- keeps him. Pain all the time. The Bruce Stanley is seriously ill with diseases they say no one else from their family has ever had. Their oldest son Todd has Crohn's Disease a serious autoimmune disease of the intestines. And mark has problems with his bones. He was twelve years old when they found that he had wedged vertebrae. A disease that doesn't occur until. Very late in life is absolutely. -- as in old age Steve had a massive tumor removed from his lymph glands and dangerous bone fractures. He even sustained a fracture stepped stepping off a career. -- bros has lesions on his brain and elevated chromium in his -- And then there is -- grows -- her spine was replaced by a metal broad when she was 36 -- the phone disappeared. He can -- disrepair and they don't know how they don't know why. Course at the time they didn't know -- chrome. Mark Walker who works for the California Highway Patrol still has high levels of chromium in his guns. And something much worse. And hodgkin's disease and neck and the chest and there are two other neighbors who also have this rare form of cancer that affects only three people in a 100000. Do you think. That the water. And Hinckley. -- camps and I'm convinced of that. But the company isn't. Robert -- is a top PG any attorney. We've been unable to come up with any epidemiological. Evidence to suggest that there is a widespread problem such as. Perhaps people have indicated to you the company has hired scientists like -- Finley. Who contend that exposure to chromium six at levels found -- Hinckley. Is not hazardous I've consumed at least several drugs of this that's for sure -- Finley has been drinking chromium for several months there are those who would say that you're drinking and gallon of this. Chromium laced water doesn't prove anything except that you in some people's minds may be foolish. Well I think approves everything there is no other way to really ascertain what happens to -- sex. When it. Is ingested. Well chromium six is very dangerous other experts disagree like Max Costa hired by the neighbors. He says residents were exposed to more than enough chromium to caused injuries and death. Cancer is a possibility birth defects. Death of cells you can have liver injury and injury in the brain and kidneys. Either way the company now admits they should've won the neighbors Morton says PG NE did come clean in 1987. Even if it was 22 years late and we went out and said. Here we are we did this we're sorry now how can we make it right bat that'll building -- -- where we did. And for the different chemicals -- -- Lillian Melendez -- PG any employee who's suing the company says Borden is wrong. The company has never fully owned up. She says she was part of yet another cover up when in 1988 she was ordered to review and destroyed thousands of company records. Protected our hands in -- of threats that we took it to the county don't and you now believe. And many of those documents which show watched how much chromium was in that water but I can tell you that since 1987. There's been nothing that has been destroyed. Of that nature. We went public and told everybody we brought doctors -- and we told them their water was not safe to drink. Roberta walker was one of those people. She says even -- the company gave her -- -- drinking water they minimized the problems while pushing her to sell them her house. I -- done asking him. You know is -- a problem and they and they would to say knowledge is. But you know everybody's -- selling this is a great opportunity. The company quietly bought up thirteen of her neighbors' homes -- even burned some. Inside the company was called a preemptive measure to avoid potential claims in other words an attempt to avoid lawsuits from the neighbors. The company kept increasing the offer until walker got suspicious she went in search of the truth about chromium six. I went to the librarian and given -- a bit of research and I just was. I almost. Passed that I couldn't believe it is essentially living on top of the toxic don't think that thing. It was a total fraud. Misleading. Terrible thing for corporations and walker hired attorney Ed masri to negotiate with the company for the sale of her house PG and he told me in my -- That if we didn't take these figures. In effect you're gonna various. After he says the company bullied him he brought in two of the most seasoned lawyers he could find. Walter -- and Tom Girardi to fight the corporate giant. -- represented people against Exxon represented people against doubt this is a million times worse. A million times staff -- they let these innocent people drink water which was laced with chrome thing yeah. The benefit. But that's not as bad as it gets the story doesn't stop here. It wasn't just the water at Hinckley that was contaminated but at the company's cattlemen California -- as well. And even after the contamination -- Hinckley became known the company still kept quiet about cattlemen. Philip Philip and an incredibly -- Thanks to raise kids and Ruth and bond grew up to cattlemen. The contamination here was just as bad as it was -- Hinckley and the company had known about it's just as long. She and her family and now decimated by disease and cancer. Her mother and sister are dead. She has Crohn's Disease like the Bruce's oldest son. I never had a chance. My my sister never had a -- as far as I'm concerned. Any kid that grew up there never had a chance and like -- and -- kid growing up in cattlemen had parents that worked. For PG -- We've lost. Three -- four uncles aunts and more than a thousand people who lived or worked around the cattlemen plant have filed suit. Has -- over 600 people in Hinckley. Because they say they're sick or fear they will be I think I always -- him. No one act fast he has passed the age of sixty. -- -- this. The company maintains the watery cattlemen was pumped in from clean wells ten miles away. But several employees who operated the plant say there's no question much of the water came from a contaminated well at the plant. So how much money could all of these lawsuits end up costing the company. They have already been confidential settlements of a 131. Million dollars in only 39 cases. And the neighbors' lawyer Walter lack expects it could go much higher. Very difficult to assess that -- -- in excess of billion dollars one billion dollars. So who at PG any -- decision not to warn anyone how high up did the decision to go. Documents show the sales department and claims to properly notified as early as the 1960s. Lawyer Tom Girardi says it went all the way to the top and you confident. That this was known of the highest levels of company. I was figuring now. And reputations and lowered my life -- -- absolutely positively without a doubt but that's not what Robert Borden says. Nobody knew about this from I think about 72 to 87 people when -- opulent and nobody knew about it up with -- Lee Baca. It was certainly -- somebody obviously knew about it because people were aware of the sixties and of what had taken place for whatever reason -- whatever level. In Hinckley are somewhere in the company people. People -- made the decision not to tell the neighbors that was wrong. Richard Jacobs is the former plant manager at Hinckley for years he was in charge of testing the water. He -- ten miles away where the water was safe. We tried to ask him why he never -- the neighbors people are saying that. That you knew that he was contaminated water but that you wouldn't say anything mr. Jacobs would really like to hear your side of this. There are a lot of people who are sick and dying mr. Jacobs. The Bruce's believes if only someone had told them the truth their -- might have been spared. They now fear the chromium is reaching into the next generation. Their grandchildren have been born with birth defects. Caused they believed by chromium six. LeRoy and I our lives -- -- It's just -- never happen again.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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