Hinkley groundwater contamination

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Hinkley groundwater contamination refers to Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) dumping "roughly 370 million gallons" of chromium-tainted wastewater" into unlined wastewater spreading ponds around the town of Hinkley, California, located in the Mojave Desert, (about 121 miles driving distance north-northeast of Los Angeles) from 1952 to 1966 and the ongoing process of restitution and clean-up.[1]:228[2] PG&E used chromium 6—"one of the cheapest and most efficient commercially available" in their compressor station for natural gas transmission pipelines.[1]:[3] Just north of California State Highway 58, the residents continue to face concerns over chromium-6 in their well water from the world’s largest plume of this cancer-causing chemical.[4]

History[edit]

Tionesta, Burney, Gerber, Delevan, Bethany, Kettleman, Hinkley, Topock "PG&E's natural gas transmission system serving millions of California homes." Created in Google Earth and Corel based on PG&E chart

In the early 1950s Pacific Gas & Electric built their first two compressor stations in Topock, Arizona and Hinkley at the southern end of what would become their trans-California natural gas transmission system—a network of eight compressor stations linked by "40,000 miles of distribution pipelines and over 6,000 miles of transportation pipelines" serving "4.2 million customers from Bakersfield to the Oregon border."[5] At both Topock and Hinkley compressor stations hexavalent chromium in the form of an additive was used in rust-prevention in "the cooling towers that prepared the gas for transportation through PG&E’s pipeline to northern and central California."[5] These cooling waters were then disposed of "adjacent to the compressor stations."[5] Although the dumping took place from 1952 to 1966 when Hinkley was "a remote desert community united by a single school and a general store."[1] PG&E did not inform the local water board of the contamination until December 7, 1987.[6]

In 1993, Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk to lawyer Edward L. Masry, investigated the apparent elevated cluster of illnesses in the community linked to hexavalent chromium.[7]

A protest sign outside the desert town of Hinkley

In 1996 "after arbitrators awarded $130.5 million in the first 39 cases, PG&E decided to settle for $333 million,"—[3] the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history.[8]

During negotiations about the lawsuit the presiding judges had told PG&E's lawyers that the 1987 study by Chinese scientist—Jian Dong Zhang reporting a strong link between chromium 6 pollution and cancer in humans,[9][10][11] "would be influential in their decision as to whether chromium-6 was harmful to human health."[12] "[T]he Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) had cited it as evidence that hexavalent chromium might be an oral carcinogen; and (3) as a ChemRisk scientist has explained in a court deposition, the study is "really the only epidemiology treatment that's out there in the literature of a groundwater contamination plume and its potential cancer effects in a population."[12]

In 1997 an article was published in which Zhang allegedly retracted his 1987 research.[13] In reality ChemRisk had purchased Zhang's original data and hired Deborah Proctor from ToxStrategies[6] to distort the findings, rewrite the paper and publish it in April 1997 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM)—the official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine—as a retraction of Zhang's 1987 paper. It was published under Zhang's name—who was then a retired Chinese government health officer, in spite of his written objection—and a second Chinese scientist, Shu Kun Li.[13] According to Peter Waldman, Zhang’s son was "outraged" at "the idea that his father would willingly have invalidated his earlier award-winning work."[14][15] "In contrast to the earlier article, the new one concluded that chromium wasn’t the likely culprit. The revised study — which did not reveal the involvement of PG&E or its scientists — helped persuade California health officials to delay new drinking water standards for chromium."[6]

In 2000, the lawsuit became an international cause célèbre, when Erin Brockovich, the blockbuster movie was released.

In 2000 David R. Andrews, who was formerly a partner in the McCutcheon law firm where he "started the environmental and natural resources practice, which grew to more than sixty lawyers and became a nationwide and international practice. In 1985 he opened the Washington, D.C. office for McCutchen and served as the managing partner until 1991."[16] Andrews was also senior counsel to the United States Department of State, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency and was known as a "legal pioneer known for forging compromise in court rooms, board rooms and diplomatic circles."[16] He was appointed as member of the PG&E Board of Directors from 2000 until his death in 2013. Andrews had "expertise in environmental law and co-founded MetaJure Inc., which focused on high-tech solutions for the legal industry." He was on the board during the tenure of PG&E Corporation Chairman, CEO and President Tony Earley.[17]

In response to public attention in March, 2001, the CalEPA asked the University of California, Berkeley to name a panel of blue-ribbon experts to form the Chromate Toxicity Review Committee. The OEHHA—which was established in 1991 with the creation of Cal/EPA OEHHA—used to be located across from the University of California, Berkeley and had maintained academic ties with this institution.[18] A public meeting was held on July 25, 2001 to get "public input on the review of scientific questions regarding the potential of chromium 6+ to cause cancer when ingested."[19] The panel was selected by Jerold A. Last with Dennis Paustenbach as Vice President and included Mark Schrenker, Silvio De Flora and John Froines as panelists.[20] Paustenbach, De Flora and Froines resigned from the committee and were replaced.[21][22]

On August 31, 2001 the Chromate Toxicity Review Committee—which then included Russell Flegal, Jerold Last, Ernest E. McConnell from ToxPath, Marc Schenker and Hanspeter Witschi—submitted their report entitled "Scientific Review of Toxicological and Human Health Issues Related to the Development of a Public Health Goal for Chromium(VI)."[21][23] The blue-ribbon academic committee recommended that reports of chromium concentrations especially in Southern California were alarmist and "spuriously high" and that further evaluation should be handled by academics in laboratory settings not by regulators.[21]:29 Their report cited both the 1987 Zhang article and the retracted 1997 version.[9][10][11][13]

Citing the 2001 Chromate Toxicity Review Committee review,[21] in November 2001 the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment withdrew their 1999 Public Health Goal for total chromium in drinking water at 2.5 parts per billion.[14][22]

In 2001 the firm of Engstron, Lipscomb and Lack had filed a follow-up lawsuit which is known as Aguayo vs. PG&E on behalf of 900 people stemming from contamination with chromium in both Hinkley and Kettleman, California.[22] In 2003 Senator Deborah Ortiz who represented the Sacramento area and chaired the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, along with Gary Praglin, a lawyer with firm of Engstron, Lipscomb and Lack in Los Angeles called a Senate hearing into the "Possible Interference in the Scientific Review of Chromium VI Toxicity."[22] At the hearing Praglin testified about the way in which the flawed 2001 report by the Chromate Toxicity Review Committee negatively impacted on their court case against PG&E.[21]

"After the blue-ribbon panel report came out, PG&E came into court, and they told the judge that everything had changed. They were waiving the blue-ribbon report—the blue-ribbon panel report—like a flag. They said to the judge, The State of California has spoken. It has said that chromium VI does not cause cancer by ingestion, and they wanted to amend their paperwork, their motions, their declarations, and move to dismiss our case. And they got that permission to do that. They amended all their paperwork, and we were given permission to take discovery—to take depositions, issue subpoenas—and we have obtained thousands of pages of documents in connection with the blue-ribbon panel process."

— Gary Praglin February 23, 2003 California Senate Hearing "Possible Interference in the Scientific Review of Chromium VI Toxicity"

Since the Hinkley groundwater contamination lawsuit, a group of California-based scientists who are part of organizations such as the Desert Sierra Cancer Surveillance Program (DSCSP) and ChemRisk—including defense expert witnesses Steven R. Patierno—have aggressively argued against the claim that chromium-VI is genotoxic, to downplay the number of cancer cases and to challenge that there was a "cancer cluster in the Hinkley area."[2][24][25][26][27]

According to the lawsuit, PG&E was also required to discontinue use of chromium-6 and to clean up the contaminated groundwater.[28] By 2008 however, the plume of chromium was spreading, capturing media attention by 2011.[28] In November 2010 PG&E began to offer to purchase threatened homes and property in Hinkley and to provide bottled water.[28] By 2013, the plume was "more than six miles long and two miles wide and gradually expanding."[8]

In 2006, PG&E agreed to pay $295 million to settle cases involving another 1,100 people statewide for hexavalent chromium-related claims.

In 2008 the EPA responded to a groundbreaking research by the National Institutes of Health agency, the National Toxicology Program, published groundbreaking research on the development of cancerous tumors on mice and rats that had consumed heavy doses of chromium (VI),[29]

In July 2014 California became the first state to acknowledge that ingested chromium-6 is linked to cancer and as a result has established a maximum Chromium-6 contaminant level (MCL) of 10 parts per billion (ppb).[30] [31] Hexavalent chromium is measured in μg/L micrograms per liter. For drinking water the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for hexavalent chromium. However, the EPA does have a MCL for all forms of chromium at 100 parts per billion.[32]

In early 2016, the New York Times described Hinkley as having been slowly turned into a ghost town due to the contamination of the area.[33]

Pollution of groundwater[edit]

PG&E operates a compressor station in Hinkley for natural gas transmission pipelines. The natural gas has to be re-compressed approximately every 350 miles (560 km), and the station uses large cooling towers to cool the gas after it has been compressed.

Between 1952 and 1966, the water used in these cooling towers contained hexavalent chromium – now recognized as a carcinogen[31] – to prevent rust in the machinery. The water was stored between uses in unlined ponds, which allowed it to percolate into the groundwater. This led to groundwater pollution, affecting soil and contaminating water wells near the compressor station, with a plume that was approximately 2 miles (3.2 km) long and nearly 1 mile (1.6 km) wide.[34] and by 2013 was already 6 miles (9.7 km) long and nearly 2 miles (3.2 km) wide.[8]

Average hexavalent chromium levels in Hinkley were recorded as 1.19 parts-per-billion (ppb) with an estimated peak of 20 ppb. The PG&E Topock Compressor Station averaged 7.8 ppb and peaks at 31.8 ppb based on the PG&E Background Study.[35] The proposed California health goal for hexavalent chromium was 0.02 ppb in 2011[36] In 1991 when the EPA raised the federal maximum contaminant level (MCL) for total chromium to 100 ppb, the State of California chose to remain with its 50 ppb MCL.[35] However, the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) now acknowledges that "at the time Total Chromium MCLs were established, ingested Hexavalent Chromium associated with consumption of drinking water was not considered to pose a cancer risk, as is now the case."[31]

Litigation[edit]

Residents of Hinkley filed a class action against PG&E, encaptioned Anderson, et al. v. Pacific Gas and Electric (Superior Ct. for County of San Bernardino, Barstow Division, file BCV 00300).[1]

In 1993, Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk to lawyer Edward L. Masry, investigated the apparent elevated cluster of illnesses in the community linked to hexavalent chromium.[37] The efforts of Brockovich and Masry, and the plight of the people of Hinkley, became widely known when the film Erin Brockovich was released in 2000.

The case was referred to arbitration with maximum damages of $400 million. After the arbitration for the first 40 people resulted in roughly $120 million, PG&E reassessed its position and decided to end arbitration and settle the entire case. The case was settled in 1996 for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history.[8]

Engstron, Lipscomb and Lack in Los Angeles was one of three law firms that handled the Anderson vs. PG&E lawsuit.[22]

In 2006, PG&E agreed to pay $295 million to settle cases involving another 1,100 people statewide for hexavalent chromium-related claims. In 2008, PG&E settled the last of the cases involved with the Hinkley claims for $20 million.[38]

Plume[edit]

Samples taken in August 2010 showed that the plume of contaminated water had started to migrate into the lower aquifer.[39][40] As of September 2013, the Cal/EPA reports that the plume has expanded to 6 miles long and 4 miles wide.[41] In 2015 the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, Lahontan Region served the PG&E with a new order "to cleanup and abate the effects of the discharge of chromium waste or threatened pollution or nuisance." By the time of the report the plume was "8 miles in length and approximately 2 miles in width, throughout the Hinkley Valley and into Harper Dry Lake Valley."[42]:2

Cleanup[edit]

By 2013 PG&E had spent over $750 million on remediation. Sheryl Bilbery who is in charge of PG&E remediation efforts, explained why remediation was taking a long time. "It's a very complex project. We are highly regulated. There are a lot of interested parties. The other thing is it is very important that we get it right."[43]

For their 2013 series entitled "Science for Sale" PBS NewsHour journalist Miles O'Brien interviewed PG&E's Director of Chromium Remediation, Kevin Sullivan, who claimed they have cleaned up 54 acres but that it would take another 40 years before they were done. PG&E built a concrete wall barrier that is about a half-mile-long to contain the plume, pump ethanol into the ground to convert chromium-6 into chromium-3, and have planted acres of alfalfa.[43] O'Brien also interviewed Erin Brockovitch who was surprised that PG&E had not completed the clean-up as promised more than a decade ago.[43] In correspondence with Sullivan the Water Board noted that by 2014 "chromium from PG&E’s historical releases at the Hinkley Compressor Station has migrated from the upper aquifer to the lower aquifer causing hexavalent chromium concentrations in the lower aquifer to exceed drinking water standards."[44]

Ongoing cleanup documentation is maintained at the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) page regarding Hinkley.[41]

Debate on Hinkley cancer clusters and chromium (VI) genotoxicity[edit]

A 2007 Toxicity Report for the National Toxicology Program provided evidence that high doses of chromium 6 caused cancer in rats and mice.[45][46]

In 2013 PG&E's Sheryl Bilbery told PBS journalist that, "There’s a lot of scientists that are still debating that question [hexavalent chromium toxicity]. I think that’s why the process has taken so long, from what I have read, both at EPA and at the state level. So, I think they’re still trying to figure out exactly what is the right answer there."[43] In July 2014 CalEPA established a maximum Chromium-6 contaminant level (MCL) of 10 parts per billion (ppb) as a result of new research which linked ingestion of hexavalent chromium with cancer.[31] Since the Hinkley groundwater contamination lawsuit, a group of California-based scientists who are part of organizations such as Desert Sierra Cancer Surveillance Program (DSCSP) and ChemRisk have argued against the claim that chromium-VI is genotoxic, to downplay the number of cancer cases and to challenge that there was a "cancer cluster in the Hinkley area."[2][24]

California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA)[edit]

In July 2014 California became the first state to put into effect a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for Hexavalent Chromium, or Chromium-6, in drinking water setting the rate at 10 parts per billion (ppb). In setting the regulations it was acknowledged that in "recent scientific studies in laboratory animals, Hexavalent Chromium has also been linked to cancer when ingested." Previously, when older Chromium MCLs were set, "at the time Total Chromium MCLs were established, ingested Hexavalent Chromium associated with consumption of drinking water was not considered to pose a cancer risk, as is now the case."[31]

According to a 2015 report by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) based on the EPA's 2010 review of the "human health effects of hexavalent chromium [Cr(VI)] in public drinking water," they re-examined related federal regulations.[47]:9 Informed by California’s 2014 regulation setting the MCL for Cr(VI) at 10 µg/L, Illinois in collaboration with the USGS undertook research which was published in 2015.[47]:9 The USEPA, taking under consideration of the most recent toxicity studies related to ingestion of Cr(VI), proposed in 2010 to "classify Cr(VI) as likely to cause cancer in humans when ingested over a lifetime."[47]:2 Concentrations of Cr(VI) in water are given in micrograms per liter (µg/L) and milligrams per liter (mg/L), with 50 µg/L equal to 50 ppb and 50 mg/L equal to 50 ppm.[47]:8

John Morgan[edit]

Since January 1, 1988 all cancers in California are reported to one California Cancer Registry (CCR) regional registries. Hinkley, which is in San Bernardino County is covered by the Desert Sierra Cancer Surveillance Program (DSCSP) with the California Department of Public Health.[48] Epidemiologist John Morgan began working with DSCSP in 1995.[49]

Morgan has published over a hundred abstracts, presentations or reports—some of which are peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts. Many of his PowerPoints and online posts attempt to debunk allegations that chromium pollution caused the cancer cluster in the Hinkley area and to downplay the number of cancer cases there.[2][24] In his often-cited 2010 California Cancer Registry study he claimed that cancer rates in Hinkley "remained unremarkable from 1988 to 2008."[24][50] In his study co-authored with M.E.Reeves they claimed that "the 196 cases of cancer reported during the most recent survey of 1996 through 2008 were less than what he would expect based on demographics and the regional rate of cancer."[24]

In his 2012 PowerPoint presentation at the Proceedings of the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries (NAACCR) Conference, Morgan using cartoon characters and simplified language, continued to argue that "Inhaled Cr[VI] powder is accepted as a carcinogen, while the role of aqueous Cr[VI] as a human carcinogen has been challenged."[51] Morgan wrote a letter to The Connection to further publicize his poster.[52]

In 2013 the Center for Public Integrity found glaring weaknesses in Morgan's 2010 analysis that challenge the validity of his findings. "In his first study, he dismisses what others see as a genuine cancer cluster in Hinkley. In his latest analysis, he excludes people who were exposed to the worst contamination."[2]

Environmental Working Group (EWG)[edit]

According to a 2010 report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Chromium(VI)-contaminated water supply is widespread in the United States with "at least 74 million Americans in 42 states" drinking chromium-polluted tap water[53][54] and in at least 25 cities toxic levels of chromium 6 were above the 2010 proposed safe maximum. In the same year a draft toxicological review by the EPA found that hexavalent chromium in tap water is "likely to be carcinogenic to humans."[53]

Dennis Paustenbach[edit]

Dennis Paustenbach, "has long been an expert witness and top consultant" to "scores of companies in the chemical, energy and medical products industries" facing lawsuits over products or environmental practices or product safety.[55] Paustenbach was the founder and director of ChemRisk. Brent Kerger was one of his senior scientists.[14] Their clients included San Francisco-based utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and BP.[10][56]

Paustenbach was at the center of a publishing scandal[11] involving the research of a Chinese scientist—Jian Dong Zhang who published a paper in 1987 reporting "significant association between chromium pollution of drinking water and higher rates of stomach cancer in residents of three villages in Liaoning Province in rural northeast China who "lived near a chromium ore smelter and drank tainted water for years."[9][10]

It remained as "the only study of people ingesting chromium-6 in their drinking water."[10]:172 Allan Hirsch said that CalEPA's 2008 review of Zhang's 1987 paper agreed with his results that the rates of stomach cancer in these 3 villages were significantly higher than the overall province.[43] PG&E hired ChemRisk, a for-profit scientific consulting firm[55][57] whose founder and director—Dennis Paustenbach—has provided expert witness testimony for "scores of companies in the chemical, energy and medical products industries" facing lawsuits over products or environmental practices or product safety.[10][55]

According to the Center for Public Integrity, "the revised study — which did not reveal the involvement of PG&E or its scientists — helped persuade California health officials to delay new drinking water standards for chromium."[6] The United States Environmental Protection Agency cited the article when it allowed continued use of chromium in a wood preservative. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry discounted chromium-6 as an oral carcinogen because of this article.[10][13]

Prompted by an investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), in 2006 JOEM undertook a six-month internal review of the 1997 retraction.[10] By the time JOEM undertook their investigation, Zhang had already died but the second author agreed the paper should be retracted when JOEM.[10][15] According to an 2005 article by Peter Waldman in The Wall Street Journal, ChemRisk had authored the article as consultants for PG&E who were "being sued for alleged chromium pollution."[15]

"It has been brought to our attention that an article published in JOEM in the April 1997 issue by Zhang and Li failed to meet the journal's published editorial policy in effect at that time... Specifically, financial and intellectual input to the paper by outside parties was not disclosed."Paul Brandt-Rauf, Editor JOEM

Paustenbach worked with ChemRisk and later Exponent.[14]:172

Steven Patierno[edit]

In September 2010, scientists at the EPA came to the startling conclusion that "even a small amount of a chemical compound commonly found in tap water may cause cancer."[25] Steven Patierno, who had served as expert defense witness for seven chromium (VI) lawsuits was surprisingly named by the EPA to serve on the peer review panel to critique the EPA’s chromium (VI) findings which is a potential conflict of interest.[26] A team of investigative journalists from the Center for Public Integrity revealed this in their series entitled Toxic Clout.[25]

One of PG&E key expert witnesses was Steven R. Patierno, deputy director of the Duke Cancer Institute and a former professor of pharmacology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences who had conducted numerous studies on chromium and who argues that "drinking low doses of chromium (VI) does not cause cancer."[25][26][27] Patierno has co-authored papers with ChemRisk's founder-director Dennis Paustenbach who also provided expert defense witnesses for PG&E. In 1996 Paustenbach and Steven Patierno were co-authors of an article arguing that chromium 6 is not genotoxic.[58] Paustenbach and ChemRisk have "drawn the scrutiny of investigative journalists."[55]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Coordinates: 34°54′11″N 117°09′36″W / 34.903°N 117.160°W / 34.903; -117.160