Erin Brockovich prepares for a real-life sequel

Her campaign became a Hollywood hit. Now the same pollution is back – and so is she

The film version ended well enough – chased down by the unlikely crusader Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts, the giant California power company PG&E settled with residents in the high desert town of Hinkley over claims it had poisoned their water supply and exposed them to life-threatening illnesses.

Regrettably, a sequel may now have to be ordered. Thirteen years after the company paid $333m (£207m) to settle the class-action suit against it spearheaded by Ms Brockovich, the silent scourge in the soil may be back.

A large plume of water laced with the offending hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, has been found spreading beyond an agreed containment boundary and towards residents' homes. Among those voicing their concern is Ms Brockovich herself, who, since the settlement with 600 Hinkley residents and the box-office success of the 2000 Oscar-winning film that bore her name, has run a legal and consulting business assisting in similar kinds of David-and-Goliath suits all over the country.

"Once again, this is a community of sitting ducks," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I'll be out there soon to help encourage people to get the word out, to start knocking on doors and examining water and soil test results. Then we'll decide how to proceed."

She added the 1997 settlement means PG&E should automatically be taking care of the plume. "But I'm not holding my breath."

"The plume is migrating, and this is a violation of the clean-up order," said Carmela Gonzalez, one of many residents who spoke up after state water regulators last week ordered PG&E to step up monitoring of groundwater quality. "It is outrageous that this has been allowed to continue. People are fed up."

Hinkley's woes date back to 1951 when the power company started using the chromium to combat corrosion in a nearby plant. Water polluted with the isotope was placed in unlined ponds and allowed eventually to seep into groundwater that feeds private wells. In the lawsuit, plaintiffs claimed it was responsible for elevated numbers of cases of breast and stomach cancer and other serious conditions.

Today, the company is not denying the growth of the new plume which is about 2 and a half miles long and a mile wide, or its breach of the agreed containment limits.

Chromium is also showing up in a deeper aquifer that was meant to be shielded by a layer of thick clay. But PG&E is not conceding that recent readings of higher-than-normal chromium levels in some nearby domestic wells are connected to it.

"These concentrations remain within the realms of naturally occurring background concentrations," Robert Doss, the company's chief engineer contended. "There is no way to determine whether our plume is having an impact or not."

Such words are barely reassuring. "It's happening again, and it's scaring the daylights out of us," notes Lillie Stone whose well recently showed levels of chromium 700 per cent higher than a year ago.

She has asked the power company to buy her and her husband's house so they can move, without success.

The local water board meanwhile says it is chasing PG&E for failing properly to contain the tainted water and told the Los Angeles Times that it is considering penalties against it.

"We have the authority to impose fines of up to $5,000 per day for each day the plume exists outside of the boundary set in 2008," said Lauri Kemper of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The water authority admits much remains unknown about how big a threat the plume presents. But its worry is clear. "This is really the first time we've seen chromium in the lower aquifer," Ms Kemper said.

"We don't have information yet that says it's reaching people's drinking wells, but there's an increased risk it can be sucked into them."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
Sport
Lewis Hamtilon and pole-sitter Nico Rosberg
SportShould F1's most aggressive driver curb his instincts in title decider?
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin