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For town made famous by 'Erin Brockovich,' a toxic sequel?

Hinkley, Calif., battled pollution of its ground water by chromium 6 in the 1990s – a case that inspired 'Erin Brockovich.' Now the substance has escaped its containment barrier.

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Smith stressed that the breach in the clay barrier between the upper and lower aquifers is at the center of the plume, which he says is far from any domestic or agricultural wells.

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But a Lahontan water-board map shows the testing location that detected the breach is less than half a mile from the two closest domestic wells. A follow-up report is due at the end of this month.

Patience running thin

Bob Bowcock, an environmental investigator working with Ms. Brockovich, says he's seen similar remediation failures elsewhere.

"I am so sick of 'The solution to pollution is dilution,' " he says. "With a chemical that dangerous, they need to remove it from the environment. It should have been removed from the water supply and the concentrated chemical landfilled at a hazardous-waste landfill or incinerated."

Likewise, Mr. Bowcock says he's heard scores of claims that clay layers will prevent pollution from spreading. They never do, he says.

Bowcock says he and Brockovich will meet this month with residents who are considering new litigation.

PG&E is "absolutely committed" to a cleanup, Smith says. But the company's most recent feasibility study predicts it could take at least 110 years.

To activist Carmela Gonzalez, assurances like Smith's ring hollow. Her well shows one of the community's highest contaminant readings, and on Christmas Eve, Ms. Gonzalez had nearly finished packing her possessions to leave Hinkley forever. As she leafed through an album of photos she took while building her home, tears filled her eyes.

"I used to ride my horse here as a little girl, and I used to say, 'I want to live here one day,' " she said. "I'd thought it all through. I spoke to someone from PG&E. I spoke to somebody from the water board. I even called the county. They all said, 'Oh, you're miles from the compression plant. You don't have to worry about it.' "

Some chromium 6 exposure may occur nationwide, suggests a survey released last month by the Environmental Working Group, which is based in Washington. Of 35 cities tested in the survey, 31 had traces of hexavalent chromium. The highest recorded level was in Norman, Okla., with a concentration of 12.9 p.p.b. – a near match with the highest level seen recently in Hinkley. The average for the 35 cities was 0.18 p.p.b., nine times the proposed public-health goal in California.

In response to the findings, Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both of California, called on the US Environmental Protection Agency to set a national chromium 6 standard. In written statements, agency officials say they already have a chromium 6 study under way and based on what they know so far, they say it's likely they will tighten the drinking-water standard for hexavalent chromium later this year.

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