The Town Erin Brockovich Rescued Is Basically a Ghost Town Now

There's still hexavalent chromium in the water, the town's houses are being knocked down, and the only place to buy beer is about to close.

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Apr 15 2015, 9:00pm

Photos by the author

If you've ever seen Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich, you know the popular story of Hinkley, California. The movie is about a Mr. Burns-style utility company operating a gas pipeline in a small town, and leaking toxins into the groundwater supply. Lab tests showed that the chemical could cause breast, brain, lung, and other cancers, along with miscarriages, birth defects, and tumors.

But can the residents of such a tiny town ever stand up to the might of a huge utility company?

Enter our heroine, a young, self-made law clerk named Erin Brockovich. She's touched by the story, and stirs her recalcitrant law firm into action against the fiendish Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E). David and Goliath comparisons are thrown around with reckless abandon, and in the end there's a $333 million payout—the largest direct-action, out-of-court settlement in the history of the US.

The movie version of that ending looked like this:

In the scene, Brockovich tells Donna Jensen, a made-up victim of the contamination, that the settlement is "enough for whatever you could ever need." It's a great story, because putting cancer in people's water is an unambiguously villainous thing to do, and the bad guys in the story lose.

But in November of 2010, PG&E publicly offered to just straight-up buy a huge amount of property in certain contaminated areas, which made it appear that something was suddenly wrong. The company had already been buying up property for decades. In fact, according to the San Bernardino Sun, they'd already turned themselves into Hinkley's largest landholder, and PG&E's insatiable appetite for Hinkley real estate at any cost was what originally clued residents in to the fact that something was awry back in the 1990s.

A growing number of residents have accepted offers in the past few years, and local business has really started to suffer. After all, PG&E isn't turning all that land into brand new condominiums. It looks like they're just knocking down the houses and saying goodbye to a big headache.

Residents told the Sun they've lost 60-80 percent of business revenue since the town's water issues began. Enrollment in Hinkley Elementary School shrank so completely that it closed altogether in 2013. Hinkley's post office also closed earlier this year. Now the only place to buy groceries and gas in Hinkley has announced that it's closing too.

I grew up in California's Inland Empire, so I've driven through Hinkley a few times, but I'm not sure I've ever stopped there before. The last time I passed through, I was on my way to Owens Lake for a story. The lake no longer exists because its waters are now fed to Los Angeles via the Los Angeles Aqueduct. What I found on its former shores was a ghost town called Swansea, a formerly nice place ruined by the ecological indifference that allowed Los Angeles to come into existence.

Could Hinkley suffer a similar fate, but with natural gas instead of water? Was the hopeful ending of Erin Brockovich that far off? I visited to find out.

My first impression was that the closures are devastating for the town's future. Aside from the market, there's not much in Hinkley other than a few scattered homes. As I walked along, I did pass one woman in her early 30s. She waved at me. "Hi," I said, and then I rushed to ask a question: "Sorry, but do you know if this neighborhood used to have more houses?"

"Yeah. That used to be a house," she said, and pointed at the empty expanse of desert behind me. If it had been acquired by PG&E, it had been successfully turned into nothing.

In a spot where there was still a house on the street, a water delivery truck backed into the driveway. Since they'd contaminated the local ground water, PG&E used to provide bottled water to every resident whose water was in the affected zone, but that stopped in October of last year. Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman, told VICE "In October of 2014, the state finally came out with the maximum con for chromium 6 [or hexavalent chromium], and since those areas were under the 10 parts per billion limit, that program sunset. "

For now, people can buy something to drink when they're thirsty, along with basic items like beer, milk, and bologna at Hinkley Market. They can even pick up an item from their list of odds and ends, like a paperback book or a cat food bowl. Maybe most important of all is the ability to fuel up their cars without having to drive to the next town over, Barstow, which might be their only option soon.

When I stopped by Hinkley Market at around 11 AM, the store owner, Ali Abuhantash wasn't in yet, but the clerk immediately asked me where I was from, and seemed genuinely curious. I told him Los Angeles, and asked him if the place was really closing.

"Yeah, man. There's just nobody here anymore," he said, and told me there'd be one more week of business—maybe two. Abuhantash's cousin, who owns the property the store was built on, is taking a check from PG&E. "They approached us," Smith told me, clarifying that this deal took place after the property-buying program had officially ended.

When I asked what the clerk would do after the closure, he said, "to be honest, nothing, probably." I was prying, and he started to sound a little annoyed, like I would sound if someone asked me why I haven't done my taxes yet.

I changed the subject and asked him if he could point me toward Mojave Solar Project. I follow renewable energy news, so I'd heard that one of the largest solar installations in the world was on the outskirts of Hinkley, which isn't as much of a coincidence as it might seem, since PG&E buys the electricity that it produces. The Solar Project had just become fully operational in January. I wanted to understand why that didn't keep property values up. The clerk said I should just point my car north at the nearest dirt road, drive into the desert about 15 miles, and I'd just see it.

He was right.

It's so expansive you really need an aerial photo to get a sense of it. I'd read that workers have to be there whenever it's generating electricity. That's not the sort of thing you associate with solar power, but the curved, mirror surfaces catching sunlight aren't photovoltaics, like the things you sometimes see on the rooftops of socially-conscious movie directors' homes. These particular solar panels reflect the sun's rays onto a water-filled tube instead. Yeah: hot water, during the worst drought in California history. Here in California, even our sustainable energy is unsustainable.

But working on a steam generator requires a staff, and a staff means customers for Hinkley's remaining businesses, like the Market and a neighborhood dive bar.

The construction spared this stately home. To its left and right are solar panels.

Other than the sound of roaring turbines, there was no activity at Mojave Solar Project. A dozen cars were parked in the two massive parking lots, but it wasn't the bustle I would have expected for such a giant facility.

On the way back into the middle of Hinkley I happened upon the only other place to buy beer: Riley's Place, a roadside dive bar and spot for bikers to buy snacks. The parking lot was empty and for a moment I worried that it was closed, but the door was open so I went inside.

It was a small place with a road house vibe, and random stuff stuck to the walls like in a TGI Fridays. The bartender on duty, Brenda McIlvain, looked at me like I was lost when I walked through the door. She poured me a beer and put the glass in a koozie—their weird little trademark according to Yelp. I asked why it was so quiet.

"When the solar plant was being built business boomed," she said. It turns out when construction was going on, there were 1,200 construction jobs, but that ended in January. It now takes 80 people to run the day-to-day operations.

"Well, I've met Erin Brockovich," she offered when I told her I was a journalist. "It's been years," she explained. "I met her twice when she used to come here. She even played pool at that pool table."

Riley's was one of the spots that featured into the Erin Brockovich story—although it wasn't used in the film. According to Brenda, Brockovich came to the bar to meet with PG&E representatives and conduct legal business, although she couldn't tell me exactly which business, since she hadn't been eavesdropping.

I asked her if she'd seen the film. "No, it makes me too mad," she said. "I know some of the people who got money and shouldn't have." It seemed like an odd stance to take, since the bad guy here is PG&E, a really easy character to hate. But it sounded like things were more complicated than that for Brenda. "I didn't know it was going on, or I wouldn't have bought stock in PG&E," she said.

She had a hard time casting PG&E as the villain in the story of her life. Finding out the huge company that does business in town has been acting irresponsibly was a shock, but the contaminated water never killed Brenda. There was just a boom in business at her bar, a big media circus when some residents got huge checks, and then business slowly tapered off.

But PG&E did act irresponsibly, and watchdog groups would argue that they didn't stop acting irresponsibly after the settlement.

Their operation in Hinkley is a natural gas compressor station along its main pipeline, which moves gas from Texas mostly to Northern California. The Hinkley operation started in the boom years of the 1950s, when science was exciting, and there was no EPA.

Hexavalent chromium was an additive that prevented rust in the gas cooling towers, and it was disposed of in nearby pools. Under ideal circumstances, the dangerous heavy metals would be filtered out and reclaimed. Instead, they were kept in unlined pools until 1966, and lined pools thereafter.

Before 1972, PG&E dumped out 370 million gallons of hexavalent chromium—slightly more in terms of volume than the oil spilled in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. In 1987, they notified the necessary watchdog group, invested $12.5 million in cleanup, and in the early 1990s, they started offering to buy real estate in spots where the contamination was worst.

Hinkley resident Roberta Walker thought it was strange when she received a $60,000 offer for her little piece of real estate in the middle of nowhere, which was probably only worth $25,000. Since she didn't feel like selling anyway, she hit them with a $250,000 counteroffer, and they said yes.

Walker started asking around. Neighbors were getting huge offers too. Armed with a little bit of light research about water contamination, Walker went to the Law Offices of Masry & Vititoe, where Erin Brockovich worked. In 1992, Brockovich started gathering plaintiffs. What she did between 1992 and 1996 became so famous, "Erin Brockovich" was used as a verb on a recent episode of Better Call Saul.

After the ensuing settlement, the affected residents were swimming in money, which is good, because most of their pool water was probably contaminated. But safe water could be delivered, and the town still seemed like a place where people could live their lives.

But over a decade later, new problems started to arise. A watchdog group called the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a cleanup order in 2008 which included the requirement that PG&E "prevent the chromium plume from migrating to locations where hexavalent chromium was below background concentration levels." Lisa Dernbach, a senior engineering geologist with the group, told the LA Times that PG&E then "let it get away from them and it started migrating toward other properties." In 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the hexavalent chromium plume was spreading, and in 2012, PG&E was slapped with a $3.6 million fine.

According to Smith, it was a time of soul-searching for PG&E. "People had a lot of anxiety about the water they were drinking, even far from where the contamination was," he said, adding that the company had done a poor job of communicating the danger in plain English. "Spouting scientific jargon was what had gone on for several years prior to 2010. Folks would call and we would give them a bunch of data or tables. Being responsive to the fact that it was an emotional issue."

This was when the PG&E "whole house water program," as it was branded, and free water was distributed. But while there were people "committed to the future of Hinkley," as Smith called them, they only made up about 35 percent of the population when that program ended. The community made it clear, he said, that "any program that didn't include property purchase as a component would demonstrate that we weren't listening."

But that year, the Environmental Working Group demonstrated that at least 31 cities around the United States had hexavalent chromium in their water, including my hometown of Riverside, California. Norman, Oklahoma, has an even worse hexavalent chromium problem, at 12.9 parts per billion, than Hinkley's estimated level in most of the community. In fact, most of Hinkley is below the new California limit (10 parts per billion) for hexavalent chromium. "Nobody is drinking water that is above the 10 parts per billion," Smith told me. "That relieved a lot of the anxiety, but by that point a lot of people had left."

In another strange twist, also in 2010, John Morgan, of the California Cancer Registry, found that Hinkley residents had developed fewer cancer cases between 1996 to 2008 than should have been expected based on the town's demographics.

But whether or not there's still contaminated water in Hinkley, the residents of those 300 houses are gone. Smith says PG&E is "committed to the future of Hinkley. We believe it has a viable future," adding that the company isn't planning to buy every house in town and level it.

Brenda, the bartender from Riley's, once owned a house, but she didn't get one of those sweet PG&E deals. She also never qualified for a payout, and she's now semi-retired. But for the time being, she hangs around until the evening shift when a guy named Dan relieves her. Every evening the pace picks up a little, and a night of boffo business can put as much as $245 in the till, she told me. It may not sound like much, but it looks like it keeps the lights on, even if things are leaner than they were in the best of times.

The town was once "full of such nice people," she said, having seen them all come through her bar over the years. "But I don't think Hinkley will ever be like it used to be."

But it's not completely deserted. Granted, there are few jobs outside of PG&E, but Brenda makes do. There's no post office, but she pointed out that PG&E is trying to arrange for a temporary post office to be set up at their work site (Something Smith confirmed was in the works). Sure, Hinkley has no school, but there are two churches, and a handful of small farms. Kids learn a lot on farms.

It even has a graffiti artist named Hobo. Hobo paints the abandoned buildings in town, and sometimes spells out the word "Hinkley" in big, defiant block letters. As I passed one of Hobo's prouder-looking murals on the way out of town, I stopped to get a closer look. It didn't seem so proud when I got closer, because someone, maybe Hobo or maybe someone else, had written "RIP Hinkley."

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

Note: A previous version misstated the year of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It was 2013, not 2010.

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