Residents leaving community as PG&E buys up properties
By Brooke Self – DesertDispatch.com, Staff Writer
HINKLEY • Ominous scrap heaps lay in a junkyard off Highway 58, the main route into Hinkley. Among the piles are bits of walls, windowsills and other remnants of houses — pieces of a community that is slowly disappearing.
Two to three homes are being demolished each week by Pacific Gas and Electric, according to local residents. Streets once lined with homes have been left with one or two.
The clock is ticking for residents of the unincorporated Mojave Desert community 14 miles northwest of Barstow. Many of them are anxious to get out.
Beset by the uncertainty of how they are truly being affected by chromium 6 lurking in the groundwater, some fear for their health or the health of their families.
Almost anyone you meet in the town will attribute a family illness to the situation.
“We’ve had four family members die on our property in the last year due to cancer,” said Janet Clark, a 70-year-old lifetime resident of Hinkley.
PG&E contaminated the town’s groundwater in the 1950s and ’60s with industrial waste containing hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, which leaked into unlined ponds from the company’s compressor station. Two decades ago, the PG&E case resulted in the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history — a case made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich.”
The process of cleaning up the miles-wide plume will continue for at least 30 years until it’s complete, according to PG&E and water board officials.
Homeowners living within the plume have been given two options by PG&E: The company will install a water purification system or buy the property. Many of the homes purchased by PG&E have been demolished.
Home values in the area have declined significantly, leaving many who are not included in the plume area and the property purchase program to walk away from their underwater mortgages.
A few plan to stay and “wait to see what happens” — including 75-year-old Betty Rivera.
“I’m not against PG&E,” Rivera said, “because they’ve been good to us. When I call and talk to someone they’re nice, they’re not nasty. They supply the water and if I need more they come and bring me more.”
Rivera said she’s lived in the area for 27 years and likes the quietness of Hinkley, preferring to stay away from the bustle of a big city. When asked what she’ll do if the town’s only market and only post office close — both likely scenarios in the future — she said she’ll move to Barstow.
Clark and her family once resided all together on several acres just north of the railroad tracks off Serra and Thompson roads. The property comprised four houses, one for her brother, another for her sister, a home for her family, and another where her mother and father resided before their deaths.
The home in the 22200 block of Thompson Road is the oldest in Hinkley, according to Clark, and she’s in the process of selling it to PG&E.
Her father received the deed from his father in 1932. The family was among the first to settle in the area, putting up windmills, managing a cattle ranch and eventually growing about 40 acres of alfalfa.
Clark and her son Walter plan to move to a home in Yermo.
“You spend so many years here, you know everybody since you were a little kid and now you’re moving to some place new,” said 36-year-old Walter Clark.
“It’s a shame really,” Janet Clark said.
“Terrible,” said her sister Joyce White. “None of us wanted to give up the place.”
Their brother Roger Sandoz has already moved to Mountain Pass, a tiny town further north up Interstate 15. White will move to Pahrump, Nev., next to her daughter, she said.
For the first time in their lives, all of the siblings will live on separate properties.
Contact Brooke Self at 760-256-4122 or at BSelf@DesertDispatch.com.