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.

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 not."

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 health."

"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 said.

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

"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 insurance."

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