Despite the polluted water in her beloved town, Reanna Banks has been a devoted Hinkley resident for most of her adult life. But time is taking a heavy toll on her devotion.
"I should have listened to my brain and not my heart," Banks said of the decision to build a dream house on family land in Hinkley.
With the ragged red-stone Mount General range in the background, Banks, 33, talked about the quietness of the location, the nighttime view of bright stars and the distant lights of Barstow.
It's here where her son, Aiden, 6, plays in the yard of her 10-acre parcel on a plateau overlooking the Hinkley Valley.
But now a groundwater plume of cancer-causing chromium-6 made famous in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich" has migrated underneath her property -- and into her property's water well.
And now, Banks' feelings about Hinkley have changed.
Her son's frequent bloody noses, her lupus and her husband's stress in devoting every spare waking moment to studying aspects of the chromium pollution and representing the community at numerous meetings, has taken its toll. All these problems, in Reanna Banks' view, point back to the water.
Officially, the Banks property isn't in the plume. Its well testing did not detect chromium-6 several times. In late 2010, a well test picked up a trace amount of chromium-6 and its been there every time since. But so far, the levels have not met the criteria for her property to be located within the plume's boundary. A house about a quarter mile away was recently identified as in the plume, and that means the Banks property falls within the one-mile buffer zone that flares out from the plume's official boundary. Therefore, the family qualifies for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s bottled water program and has opted for the utility's sophisticated household water filtration system, which should be operational by the end of August.
Reanna Banks, however, wants out -- for her son, her own health and her husband's.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Residents weren't supposed to see chromium-6 showing up in their wells again.
The Hollywood movie that earned Julia Roberts an Academy Award for her portrayal of Erin Brockovich, left many with the impression that everything would be OK in this unincorporated community of fewer than 2,000 people, 10 miles west of Barstow and two hours northeast of Los Angeles.
But 17 years after a settlement in which San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. awarded $333 million to slightly more than 600 residents, the most recent map of the plume's boundary shows the known northern edge has nearly quadrupled from 1.75 miles north of the source to about 7 miles north of a PG&E natural gas compression station that opened in 1952. Back then, the utility company used chromium-6 in its giant cooling tanks to prevent rust and it would then dump the spent water into unlined ponds where the element eventually seeped into the groundwater.
And it's growing -- 2.53 feet per day, according to Lisa Dernbach, a geological engineer with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of nine regional water quality control boards in California, operating under the umbrella of the State Water Resources Control Board.
The plume's growth has swallowed a major part of Hinkley, and now, some people -- even Brockovich -- say the entire town is threatened with extinction. Its residents are fleeing. Its only school closed last month, and its only retail outlet -- a small market -- is struggling as the number of customers dwindles.
For PG&E, water filtration devices, bottled water and buyouts of homes have been ways to deal with the plume's effects in a time when there's no playbook for such cleanup. But for others, the death of the town from its toxic water is inevitable.
And why should anyone care?
The very future of Hinkley, like towns across the nation dealing with toxic water, is threatened by pollution, Brockovich said.
"Hinkley will be a ghost town," Brockovich said. "It will be another town lost in America due to pollution."
Brockovich left Hinkley in 1997 feeling justice had been done.
It was a story Hollywood played up.
Unemployed-single-mom-turned-legal-assistant almost single-handedly forces giant California power company to pay millions for years of polluting local water with a substance linked to cancer.
It was a "David and Goliath victory," Brockovich said in a recent interview.
But Brockovich knows better today.
"I'm almost ashamed to say that after all we had been through with PG&E, I thought that PG&E would have addressed this (the cleanup)," Brockovich said. "I walked away assuming that everything was OK, and it wasn't. I feel duped, ashamed and really sad for the people of Hinkley."
Even Roberta Walker, 59, who is Reanna Banks' mother, and the resident who back in the 1990s alerted Brockovich to the plume, is dismayed.
She and her husband bought 10 acres far away from the plume and she was certain that after the legal settlement -- and the movie -- PG&E would contain it.
"I should have known better," she said.
Many feel that way, including lifelong Hinkley resident Carmela Spasojevich.
It was Carmela Spasojevich -- then Carmela Gonzalez -- who in 2010 sounded the alarm that the chromium-6 plume had spread dramatically.
And it all started, she said, because her bay quarter horse, Katie, was drinking very little water.
One day, Spasojevich noticed that the horse looked drawn-in, and by pinching her skin, she determined Katie was dehydrated.
Substituting bottled water for well water, Katie, who was old for a horse, resumed drinking normally.
"I knew one thing for sure: My water had changed. That's when I started doing some digging," she said.
She started calling neighbors and looked up files at the Lahontan Water Quality Control Board website, which oversees the Hinkley cleanup.
Records, submitted to the water agency by PG&E, showed the plume of contaminated water had expanded.
Chromium-6 levels of some wells were "going off the chart," she said.
None of the readings exceeded the state's current safe water drinking standard -- 50 parts per billion of total chromium, which includes chromium-6, a carcinogen, and chromium-3, which in trace amounts is essential for human life.
Because the levels were below current state guidelines, there is no requirement that residents be notified. In fact, there is no Hinkley resident drawing water from a well known to exceed the current state standard.
But the prospect of chromium-6 showing up in more residents' wells was alarming in a town already sensitive to water issues.
The plume of highly soluble chromium-6 glides easily with the groundwater beneath Hinkley. And that path is generally north at an average rate of 2.53 feet per day, although it can be pulled to the east or west by heavy pumping for agricultural uses, Dernbach said. Agricultural pumping can also pull the plume more rapidly northward, she said.
Using that number, Dernbach estimates that the chromium plume is actually more than seven miles long. One of the Lahontan water board's many directives to PG&E is to more accurately define the plume boundaries. But PG&E has been hampered in its quest to sink more wells north of the plume because the area is habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and the Mojave ground squirrel.
In its quest to do that, PG&E already draws water for testing from more than 600 sampling points.
Had the Hinkley compressor station been located somewhere, like Oregon or Ohio, where the yearly rainfall supports rich plant life, the soil would be packed with microbes, which would naturally convert chromium-6 to its benign relative, chromium-3, scientists say.
One of PG&E's remediation efforts involve planting fields of grasses or alfalfa over portions of the plume and irrigating those fields with the contaminated water from below. Conversion of chromium-6 to chromium-3 occurs quickly in the root zone.
Using the water board's records, Spasojevich revealed at a water board meeting that a groundwater monitoring well little more than a mile north of a compressor station had registered stunning increases in the level of chromium-6, a compound linked to cancers of the nose, lungs, stomach and other organs. She found the levels for total chromium had gone from 1.9 ppb in 2007 to 18.8 ppb in 2010, a huge increase, but still well below the state standard of 50 ppb.
Officials stressed caution.
Results of one water sampling don't determine a trend, said Lauri Kemper, the Lahontan water agency's assistant executive officer.
But by early 2010, additional sampling well water analyses confirmed that the initial readings were not a fluke -- the plume was heading north.
The news of a growing plume set off alarm bells among many residents.
"This is crazy," Roberta Walker recalled thinking after viewing Spasojevich's information. "We exposed them in 1993. They
(PG&E) promised everyone they would contain it... . I thought they would contain it, like a fence."
And many once again looked at the water as a source of health problems, a dwindling population and a shaky future for the town.
PG&E says that a massive, multimillion-dollar effort has been undertaken to contain the spread and keep people's drinking water safe. That effort involves technology, water filtration and buyouts.
The company has always acknowledged that part of the plume was its doing, but there's a caveat: The company asserts that naturally occurring chromium-6 was in the Hinkley groundwater water before its compressor station was built six decades ago.
"There is no playbook on how to do this," said Sheryl Bilbrey, PG&E's director of chromium remediation.
Hinkley's water problems date back to the use of chromium-6 to protect the metal and kill algae in cooling towers at that station. The power company would periodically dump the contents into an unlined pond, a not uncommon practice in that era before the cancer-causing properties of chromium-6 were known.
Scientists from around the world have visited the remediation sites, where two 10,000-gallon tanks inject ethanol into the worst part of the plume, setting up a chemical reaction that turns chromium-6 into the less dangerous chromium-3, said Kevin Sullivan, the PG&E environmental engineer in charge of the Hinkley cleanup.
Little more than a mile north of the plant, PG&E has set up a half-mile wide barrier, with multiple ethanol injection points, to box in the worst part of the plume, Sullivan said.
The strategy is working, Sullivan said, because recent maps of the plume show that it has been split in two, a southern part and a larger part plume in the north -- with much lower concentrations of chromium 6.
Sullivan said that he believes much of the northern plume is naturally occurring, thus not caused by PG&E's operations.
"The travesty was that a $333 million lawsuit and an Oscar-winning movie did not bring enough attention to this," Spasojevich said. "What makes the situation that much more shocking is that California has a reputation for being one of the most highly regulated states in the nation, yet it is allowing this to happen."
Local officials agree.
"What happened in Hinkley is nothing less than horrific," said First District San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood. "Have we learned from what happened to Hinkley? I certainly think we have and I think the state has addressed any possibility of a repeat."
"This is an ongoing issue that spans 40 years already and is still developing," said 33rd District Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. "The facts on the ground are that this is a serious issue that has changed many residents' lives forever because of human error."
Will Hinkley become a ghost town, as Brockovich recently predicted?
PG&E's Jeff Smith isn't so sure.
Smith, the utility's spokesman, would not respond to questions about whether Hinkley would become extinct or the extent to which the company would be responsible for such a fate.
"It is not appropriate for me to speculate on what the town will look like in the future," he said.
Ultimately, it's up to residents, he said.
"Certainly the dynamics of Hinkley are changing because of the options they (residents) are taking. Our objective has never been to make choices for folks," Smith said.
"There are those who are going to remain in the community, and we will be part of the community for many years to come, and we want to be a good neighbor and partner for those who remain."