PG & E agrees to $3.6 million settlement; half goes to Hinkley school

PG & E agrees to $3.6 million settlement; half goes to Hinkley school

Source:, February 1, 2012
By: Jim Steinberg

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has agreed to pay a $3.6 million fine for violating a regulatory agency’s order to contain a plume of chromium 6 contaminated water to the boundaries known in 2008, company and regulatory officials confirmed Wednesday night.

Since the third quarter of 2011, the known plume boundary has grown northward by about two miles, although officials say the plume may have been in that space for some time previously.

At PG & E’s insistence, half of the fine will go to Hinkley Elementary School to develop a whole water replacement system.

A water board official said PG & E is planning to pipe drinking water into the school from outside the Hinkley area.

Drinking fountains at the school were shut down – for the first time – last fall, at the request of parents.
Between 1952 and 1966, PG & E used chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, to reduce corrosion in cooling towers at its natural gas compressor station in Hinkley.

At that time, the cancer-causing aspects of chromium 6 were not known.

Wastewater from the cooling towers were discharged in unlined ponds at the site, allowing the chromium 6 contaminated liquids to percolate into the groundwater.

Jeff Smith, a PG & E spokesman said, “PG & E felt it was important that as much of the settlement as possible be returned to the Hinkley community.”

At community advisory committee meetings – a group PG & E organized in the community – members have noted their concerns about the health of schoolchildren at the school, Smith said.

Lauri Kemper, assistant executive officer, of the Lahontan Regional Water Control Board, said chromium 6 levels at the wells that serve the school have varied between one and two parts per billion, below what a controversial PG & E study determined was the natural background level for the area.

The findings of that background level study are under review.

“This is excellent. This is what we have been fighting for,” said Joel Valenzuela, who has two daughters attending the school. “We have been fighting for them (PG & E) to take responsibility.”

“The school is the centerpiece of our community,” he said, adding that he was concerned the Barstow school district, which runs the Hinkley school, would siphon some of the money.

Kemper said the way the settlement agreement is structured, that won’t happen.

Kemper said that the water agency was motivated to work out a settlement with PG & E because the company had proposed that much of its fine be spent for the benefit of the Hinkley community.

“That sounds good. That sounds real good,” said James Dodd, who serves on the community advisory board with Valenzuela, and has lived in Hinkley for 34 years.

“I’m glad to see the water board is stepping up and doing something…we are now starting to see some action.”

Valenzuela said that because the water agency did not warn parents about the extend of chromium 6 contamination in the school’s water, it should not be allowed to keep any of the settlement funds.

Instead of sending half of the settlement to the state, that should be used to establish a college fund for the school’s graduates, he said.

“Our children have been damaged by this (drinking the water at school),” Valenzuela said.

“I have spent thousands of dollars to protect my children at home with water purification systems, and bottled water, and then I find out my kids have been drinking contaminated water at school.”

Valenzuela said that Hinkley’s population – and the school’s students – have dwindled dramatically in recent years because of the chromium 6 plume.

Kemper said that the water board notified the school district of the well sampling results and “it was up to them to decide whether or not to tell parents.”

Half of the $1.8 million settlement goes into the state Water Resources Control Board Waste Discharge Permit Fund, Kemper said.

The settlement agreement will go to the water agency’s board of directors for final approval when it meets at the Hampton Inn in Barstow on March 14 and 15, Kemper said.

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