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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Voices
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
News
i100
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power