Los Angeles Times
February 5, 2006


Despite an apology and $295-million settlement, residents struggle to
cope with cancer and chronic
ailments linked to tainted groundwater.

Rachel's summary:

By Andrew H. Malcolm

HINKLEY, Calif. -- Lynn Morris doesn't know if she's covered by
Friday's $295-million settlement by
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for groundwater contamination in and around
this tiny, windblown community
125 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Neither does Tom Owens, Silvestre Castillo or hundreds of others who
live in this hardscrabble corner of
the Mojave Desert with 1,000 residents. But as word of the latest
settlement began to seep through town,
one thing seemed clear, money or not: The suffering is not over.

"We've been waiting so long, we'll be happy when we hear," said one
victim, who has lupus and didn't
want her name used. "But we're not going to get better, settlement or

Friday's apology and agreement to pay $295 million to about 1,100
residents of Hinkley, Kettleman Hills
and other towns is the second such settlement. "This situation should
never have happened, and we are
sorry it did," a PG&E spokesman said.

In 1996, the company agreed to pay $333 million to 650 people who
claimed that cancer and other chronic
ailments were caused by chromium-tainted water leaking from Hinkley's
natural gas pumping station. That
initial settlement formed the basis for the 2000 film "Erin
Brockovich," for which Julia Roberts won the
best actress Academy Award.

Brockovich, who was a consultant to the plaintiffs' lawyers in the
most recent settlement, called it
"bittersweet." She said PG&E's apology was "a huge step." The
pollution of the area, she said, "has cost
everybody. For the corporation, it's the payout; for the residents who
were impacted, it cost their

"The problem is," said Will Holland, a local truck driver, "the
suffering will go on here as long as any
of us stay alive." Holland's wife, Erin, had a hysterectomy and has a
breast lump and frequent headaches
and nosebleeds. Their daughters, Sarah, 26, and Evah, 22, do not
menstruate and have chronic back
problems, Holland said.

The chromium problem dates to 1951. Spent chromium, used to reduce
corrosion in cooling lines, seeped
from open retention ponds into local groundwater. Will Holland said he
remembers water during his
childhood smelling like sulfur.

Other children swam in PG&E ponds. Residents recall merciless summers
when local firetrucks delivered
water donated by PG&E. As a Brownie and Girl Scout, Lynn Morris spent
many childhood days camped out at
a PG&E picnic ground.

Morris said she has steady back pain, an ovarian tumor and dental
troubles, and her son, Jeremy, had a
facial tumor removed. "It's all got to be more than coincidence," she

The claimed maladies are legion.

Tom Owens, an unemployed railroad machinist who has lived here 36 of
his 58 years, said he has trouble
breathing at times and chronic dental difficulties.

His wife, Kathleen, had a miscarriage, and at age 19 his son Richard
lost all his hair.

Owens suspects he has other ailments, but like many here he is without
health coverage and isn't sure.
"A lot of my friends have some kind of cancer," he said, adding,
"Sure, we swam in the ponds. Who knew?"

In her 50s, Lynn Tindell said she has an arthritic back and numerous
allergies like her children. She
said she takes 10 medications daily and can't remember life without
back pain.

"Years ago," she said, "You just figured, 'Geez, I must be decrepit
early.' People don't talk about such
things much. Whoever thinks they're being poisoned?"

In the Castillo family, everyone has bad backs and gastrointestinal
problems, including frequent
cramping, plus a fear of getting no settlement.

"The suffering is ongoing," said Gloria Darling, a former mayor. "You
have heart problems, back pain,
portions of intestines removed, 13-year-olds with hysterectomies. And
the majority of people are without

So ubiquitous is the suffering that it has become a sick joke.
"Whenever anyone has any physical problem
now," said Tindell, who got $50,000 from the first settlement.
"Everyone just says, 'Oh, it's the
chromium.' "

By late afternoon Saturday, a small crowd was gathering at Our Place,
the local bar. "People don't want
to get their settlement hopes up too much," said owner Brenda
McIlvain, whose ex-husband may benefit.
"But there's always hope."

Regulars read the settlement news to each other out loud, then shared
stories of inequities from the
first settlement -- people left out, visitors who received more than
residents. Jeff Vinson complained
that Brockovich never paid him for help with research for the initial

"This'll never be over," said Tim Bell.

But even after all the gloomy talk at the bar much of the afternoon,
McIlvain, Owens, Tindell and others
could turn their thoughts to a happier subject. On a moment's notice,
when someone remembered today's
Super Bowl, the mood immediately brightened. Everyone got up and
pitched in to help prepare the bar and
patio for the Super Bowl party. There, McIlvain will be serving two
varieties of elk chili -- mild and
Mojave. "I can't wait," Owens said.

***** Times staff writer Peter Y. Hong contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times