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'Erin Brockovich' Town Faces New Threat

Nov 22, 2012
Originally published on November 22, 2012 5:20 pm

Hinkley, Calif., is the small town that battled toxic groundwater and inspired the 2000 film Erin Brockovich. Now residents say they are experiencing a sequel to their story.

A few years ago, people started talking about the water again. Residents developed strange rashes and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. — blamed for the town's groundwater pollution — was offering to buy homes again, this time in areas previously believed to be unaffected by the contamination.

'I Just Want To Leave'

There were a lot of things Roberta Walker liked about the 6-acre piece of land she bought more than a decade ago. It had great views and plenty of space to ride her horses, and it was a good seven miles from the contaminated well water at her previous home.

"We built a house and this is where we were and this is where we were going to stay," she says. "There was no chromium here."

But now Walker says it's time to leave.

It began with her horses getting sick. "I had five. Three of them have died within the last three years," she says. "And it's starting all over again."

Julie Heggenberger, a 36-year-old mother of two, was just a teenager when PG&E agreed to pay $333 million to residents who claimed they had been made ill by toxic well water. For decades, workers at PG&E's nearby compressor station dumped the chemical hexavalent chromium into waste ponds that seeped into the town's groundwater.

"I sat and I listened, and I was just like — these are the words they were telling us in '97," Heggenberger says. "Even at the time, some people were like, 'Why are you staying?' But we really did feel safe. PG&E said this plume ... it'll never spread, the contamination was back in the '60s, it's over."

Heggenberger, who suffers from Crohn's disease, says she never considered leaving before. She has deep family roots here.

"But when I was in the hospital the second time and all of this has been brought up again ... I said I just want out. That's where I am now. I just want to leave."

What To Do?

Pacific Gas & Electric acknowledges the toxic plume is larger than once thought, but disputes that it is actually growing.

"The reason that it's larger is because we are testing in areas that haven't been previously tested," says Jeff Smith, a spokesperson for PG&E.

"A couple of options for local residents who live within a mile of the contaminated area from PG&E's past actions here — what we offered was either a whole household water-treatment system or, for those that were interested, a property-purchase program," he says.

More than 200 property owners, over a quarter of the town, have elected to sell their homes to the utility. Along long stretches of asphalt, country mailboxes sprout like desert flowers amid scatterings of boarded-up houses.

Theresa Schoffstall says her home just outside the boundary of the contaminated area does not qualify for the buyout, but her next-door neighbor's home does.

"I'm not an expert in all of this, but to me it's just common sense in a way, the water flows and if it's 200 feet from me, how can mine be different?" she says. "That's what I don't understand."

Schoffstall fears the home she and her husband built 12 years ago is now worthless, but most of all she worries about her children. The family has stopped drinking the water.

"But I'm still cooking and we still shower and we have a swimming pool, and a lot of times people are telling you that's harmless, but I don't want 10 years from now, all of a sudden, [to hear,] 'Remember we told you it was harmless? Now, no its not,' " she says.

Here To Stay

While the Schoffstall family struggles with the decision of whether to stay, 57-year-old Ray Pearce says his mind is made up.

"I'm not moving. I like it here. If I didn't like it here I wouldn't live here. I'd be gone a long time ago," he says.

Pearce was born here, owns 20 acres and likes the quiet. He also likes his neighbors, but recently he's been watching them go, one by one.

"Another friend — all of us went to school together — they just signed escrow papers the other day; they're moving," Pearce says. "And it's just a shame to see what's going on here, and PG&E needs to be held liable for it."

Many of the families, some of whom have lived here for generations, are finally saying goodbye. They realize their town, a place where everyone knew and helped each other, is no longer. PG&E says the cleanup of Hinkley could take decades.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Hinkley, California, is the small town whose battle with toxic groundwater inspired the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich" starring Julia Roberts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ERIN BROCKOVICH")

JULIA ROBERTS: (as Erin Brockovich) I want you to think real hard about what your spine is worth, Mr. Walker. Or what you might expect someone to pay you for your uterus, Ms. Sanchez. Then you take out your calculator and you multiply that number by a hundred. Anything less than that is a waste of our time. By the way, we had that water brought in special for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley.

CORNISH: Now, residents of the town that Hollywood made famous say they are experiencing a sequel to their story. Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: There were a lot of things Roberta Walker liked about this six-acre piece of land she purchased more than a decade ago. It had great views, plenty of space to ride her horses, and it was a good seven miles from the contaminated well water of her previous home.

ROBERTA WALKER: We built a house and this is where we were, and this is where we were going to stay. There was no chromium here.

HILLARD: But now Walker, who has long called Hinkley home, says it's time to leave. It began with her horses getting sick.

WALKER: I had five and three of them died - have died within the last three years. And it's starting all over again.

HILLARD: A few years ago, people started talking about the water again, about the strange rashes and that Pacific Gas and Electric Company, blamed for the town's groundwater pollution, was offering to buy homes again. This time in the areas believed previously to be unaffected by the contamination.

JULIE HEGGENBERGER: And I sit and I listened and I was just like, these are the words they were telling us in '97.

HILLARD: Julie Heggenberger, a 36-year-old mother of two, was just a teenager when PG&E agreed to pay $333 million to residents who claimed they had been made ill by toxic well water. For decades, workers at PG&E's nearby compressor station dumped the chemical hexavalent chromium into waste ponds that seeped into the town's groundwater.

HEGGENBERGER: Even at that time, some people were like, why are you staying? Why are you - you know, but we really did felt safe. PG&E said this plume, it'll never spread. The contamination was back in the '60s. It's over.

HILLARD: Heggenberger, who suffers from Crohn's disease, says she never considered leaving before. She has deep family roots here.

HEGGENBERGER: But when I was in the hospital the second time and all of this has been brought up again, I said, I just want out. And that's where I am now is I just want to leave.

HILLARD: Pacific Gas and Electric acknowledges the toxic plume is larger than once thought, but disputes that it is actually growing.

JEFF SMITH: The reason that it's larger is because we're testing in areas that haven't been previously tested.

HILLARD: Jeff Smith, a spokesperson for PG&E, says in response to community concerns, the company introduced...

SMITH: A couple of options for local residents who live within a mile of the contaminated area from PG&E's past actions here. And what we offered was either a whole household water treatment system or, for those that were interested, a property-purchase program.

HILLARD: More than 200 property owners, over a quarter of the town, have elected to sell their homes to the utility. Along long stretches of asphalt, country mailboxes sprout like desert flowers amid scatterings of boarded-up houses. Theresa Schoffstall says her home, just outside the boundary of the contaminated area, does not qualify for the buyout, but her next-door neighbor's home does.

THERESA SCHOFFSTALL: I'm not an expert in all of this, but to me it's just common sense in a way. The water flows, and if it's 200 feet from me, then, you know, how can mine be different? That's what I don't understand.

HILLARD: She fears the home she and her husband built 12 years ago is now worthless, but most of all she worries about her children. The family has stopped drinking the water.

SCHOFFSTALL: But I'm still cooking and we still shower and we have a swimming pool. And, you know, a lot of times people are telling you that's harmless, but I don't want 10 years from now, all of a sudden, oh, remember we told you it was harmless? Now, no, it's not.

HILLARD: While the Schoffstall family struggles with the decision of whether to stay or just walk away from their home, 57-year-old Ray Pearce says his mind is made up.

RAY PEARCE: I'm not moving, you know? I like it here. If I didn't like it here, I wouldn't live here. I would've been gone a long time ago.

HILLARD: Pearce was born here, owns 20 acres and likes the quiet. He also likes his neighbors, but recently he's been watching them go one by one.

PEARCE: Another friend, they - we went to - all of us went to school together. They just signed escrow papers the other day. They're moving. And it's just a shame to see what's going on here. You know, PG&E needs to be held liable for it.

HILLARD: Many of the families, some who have lived here for generations, are finally saying goodbye. They realize their town, a place where everyone knew and helped each other, is no longer. PG&E says the cleanup of Hinkley could take decades. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.