View: Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board investigative order
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HINKLEY - The utility company at the center of this High Desert town's efforts to clean up a growing toxic plume has been cited for providing bottled water to residents that exceeds levels set by a regional water board, officials said.
San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. allegedly provided bottled water to residents that goes beyond the minimum chromium 6 levels required by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Chromium 6 is a cancer-causing heavy metal that has been used in industry.
And it was at the center of Hinkley's battle with PG&E after years of dumping water tainted with chromium compounds into local waste ponds and ultimately a $333million settlement over illnesses and cancers that the movie "Erin Brockovich" made famous.
The utility has provided bottled water for about 300 Hinkley households and its combined elementary and junior high school.
The water board also cited PG&E for allegedly failing to provide evidence that a whole household water replacement system meets the same chromium 6 standard.
During the 1950s and 1960s, PG&E used chromium 6 to kill algae and protect the metal at its Hinkley natural gas pumping station.
Periodically that water was dumped into unlined ponds where it percolated into the groundwater. It was a common practice before the cancer-causing properties of chromium 6 were known.
The plume of chromium 6 contaminated groundwater has been growing ever since and is now known to be about 2 miles wide and 6 miles long.
The water board alleges that five-gallon bottles PG&E provided to some residents in August and September contained chromium 6 concentrations greater than the 0.06 parts per billion it required.
The chromium 6 concentration in the bottled water was 0.11 parts per billion in August and 0.14 parts per billion in September. Those numbers were buried in data PG&E provided without a written report, said Lauri Kemper, assistant executive officer for the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.
PG&E needs to alert the water agency and people in Hinkley when its bottled water exceeds the agency's minimum chromium 6 content level.
The water board also alleges that PG&E failed to provide evidence that the whole household replacement water system it supplied to residents contained chromium 6 levels of less than the 0.06 parts per billion.
There are no penalties for the two violations.
"They get another chance," Kemper said.
She noted that the amounts of chromium 6 in the bottled water are just a fraction of a part per billion.
The state standard is 50 parts per billion for all chromium, which includes both the cancer-causing chromium 6 and the more benign chromium 3.
The state standard is under review and will likely be lowered significantly in a few years.
The federal drinking water standard for all chromium is 100 parts per billion.
"We felt that they had the ability to provide drinking water to Hinkley residents which would contain less that .06 parts per billion of chromium 6," Kemper said.
"This is a pretty small number," said Daron Banks, a longtime Hinkley resident and a member of the Community Advisory Committee, a group that represents Hinkley residents in negotiations with PG&E and the water board. "But the whole thing of it is that the order states .06 (parts per billion). So they are in violation of the order."
PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said "it is important to realize anybody could go into a grocery store anywhere and buy bottled water off the shelf that could conceivably have chromium six at these levels (0.14 parts per billion). That is well below the state requirement."
In the future, PG&E will pull samples of its monthly bottled water allocation and have them tested before delivery to ensure that the chromium 6 content falls within the water agency's requirement, Smith said.
The past practice had been to deliver the water before test results came back from the lab, he said.
"We might start buying the water a few days earlier," he said.
PG&E found it to be "a bit interesting" to receive corrective action from the water agency given the fact that its former executive officer, Harold Singer, had assured PG&E officials in December 2011 that by providing bottled water from a reputable company, PG&E had "satisfied the requirements" of the order, Smith said.
Kemper said Singer's statement did not mean that the utility would be exempt from independently validating that the bottled water met the agency's directive for chromium 6 content.
Singer retired last year.
Two Hinkley households have elected to let PG&E install, without charge, sophisticated water purification systems in their homes, Smith said, although several more are on the list to get it.
Regarding that violation, Smith said, "We always want to be responsive to the water board's requests. We will work to provide all the data they need going forward."
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