Pioneering water study in Hinkley to determine contamination sources

By Jim Steinberg, The Sun

HINKLEY >> Starting in March, scientists are expected to begin drawing the first groundwater samples that will help resolve a long-standing question here: how much of this community’s below-ground contamination is the result of nature and how much is the result of man-made actions?

The $5.4 million pioneering study, conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, is sought by all parties to the complex cleanup of the worlds’ largest chromium-6 contamination site.

The results of the survey that residents and PG&E — the company many have blamed for much of the pollution — say will play a key role in determining the end goal for a Hinkley cleanup.

The toxic plume beneath Hinkley is the legacy of 12 years of operations, from 1952 to 1964, when PG&E discharged untreated chromium-6 into unlined ponds, where it seeped into the water table 80 feet below.

While residents have been concerned for years about the health effects of the pollution, the issue came to notoriety in 2000 when the film “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts, exposed the effects of the cancer-causing chromium-6 in the small desert town’s groundwater.

Actions to mitigate this plume — which water regulators estimate is eight miles long — are being closely watched by the environmental business community around the country, said Ian Webster, who for nearly three years has been the technical adviser to the Hinkley community.

“Wherever I go, whether it’s U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh or ExxonMobil in Houston, they know what’s happening in Hinkley, said Webster, who with his Brea-based Project Navigator Ltd., does environmental consulting around the world.

Residents in the proud but dwindling town, who for years have sought answers on sources of the plume, are optimistic about the study.

“I see (John) Izbicki and the USGS riding in on a white horse,” said Daron Banks, a longtime Hinkley community advocate who four years ago began speaking with John Izbicki to answer technical questions related to the cleanup effort.

Izbicki, the geochemist who has studied the groundwater in the Mojave Desert for 20 years, will lead this sophisticated study to settle the “nature versus PG&E” question.

In countless presentations and meetings, Izbicki has won the confidence of the Hinkley community, PG&E and state water regulators.

“We know they (USGS) are going to come in and tell us the truth and we don’t have to worry about politics … they will just do the science and give us answers,” said Banks, who is a member of Hinkley’s Community Advisory Committee.

PG&E is also enthused about Izbicki’s analytical skills, having put up nearly $4.5 million to pay for the study in addition to nearly $900,000 from the USGS.

Those funds are in an account managed by the state.

The path to Izbicki’s study began when members of the Hinkley community years ago called into question the accuracy of a background study conducted by PG&E consultants using 2007 data.

This study was officially scrapped in 2012 because an independent scientific review determined it was “completely worthless,” the words of one of the three experts hired by the California Water Resources Board to review the study.

About four years ago, Banks learned the USGS had done a study on chromium-6 in the Twentynine Palms area, so he called the agency, which eventually lead him to the chief researcher/author — Izbicki.

“He was just this nice guy and he spent as much time as I needed,” Banks said last week.

From that point, there were numerous follow-up calls to Izbicki for more answers about water questions.

Eventually, Izbicki, who works in San Diego, volunteered to attend a Community Advisory Committee and answer questions from all. This appearance was before the first background study had been formally discredited.

Izbicki, who has studied the groundwater in the Mojave Desert for 20 years, will use a variety of sophisticated and expensive analytical techniques to unravel the puzzle of chromium-6 in the Hinkley Valley — a decision which has huge ramifications for the total cost of PG&E’s cleanup responsibility — and cost.

California law requires polluters to decontaminate down to the level that existed prior to their operations — or as close as reasonably as possible.

Included in Izbicki’s techniques is the use of tritium, a radioactive element that rarely occurs naturally.

Its presence on Earth is largely the result of above-ground nuclear testing, which ended in late 1963.

So by measuring the presence of tritium markers, Izbicki can determine whether a water sample was present during the years PG&E discharged chromium-6 into unlined ponds, a practice that was common at that time.

This information would be just one of many building blocks to learn the source of Hinkley’s chromium-6.

“The sampling is very sensitive and the analysis takes a long time,” Izbicki said in a telephone interview. “Only a few labs (in the country) have the ability to run these tests.”

“In every cleanup project there are always goals and targets. The big question with Hinkley is what the ultimate cleanup goal will be,” Webster said.

Last week, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a draft cleanup order for the Hinkley site, which gives PG&E deadlines for certain cleanup goals.

But none address water quality below 10 parts per billion.

“We will revisit everything when the background study comes out,” said Lauri Kemper, executive director of the Lahontan water agency.

“In the meantime, they (PG&E) have plenty of things to do to keep them busy,” Kemper said.

The cleanup decision-making process at Hinkley “challenges the traditional way that Fortune 500 companies manage cleanup efforts,” said Webster, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Traditionally, company officials meet with regulators and regulators tell them what to do,” Webster said. “But in the Hinkley cleanup, the community has taken on a role and exerted “remarkable” influence.”