Desert Research Station Report
STILL HERE, DESPITE THE ODDS AND ODDITIES
The Center's Desert Research Station, north of Hinkley, California, continues its role as an exploratory node in the Mojave and a base for examining issues related to remote sensing and the margins of detection. The main exhibit space and walking trail are open to the public, while additional buildings provide logistics support for research projects.
THE SURROUNDING COMMUNITY OF HINKLEY continues its dissolution, as the effects of PG&E’s plume of hexavalent chromium, some say the largest in the land, dissipates under ground and above it. Though the legal settlements seem to be complete (as of 2008), people are still leaving town for all kinds of reasons—like there is no school or post office or store there anymore. Modest homes, abandoned, can remain empty for years, getting picked apart by vandals until the bank, or county, or wind eventually tear them down. PG&E is still buying property and removing structures too.
PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric), of course, is one of the three big private energy utilities operating in California, along with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric. While these latter two primarily serve Southern California, PG&E is based in San Francisco, and mostly serves Northern California. PG&E provides electricity to the region, produced at its hydro-power plants in the Sierras, and its Diablo Canyon Power Plant on the coast, the only commercial nuclear plant still operating in the state.
But like its name says, the other part of the company is gas, which was the company’s main resource starting in the 19th century, when it delivered manufactured gas for lighting San Francisco. In the 1930s, the company helped build one of the longest pipelines in the country to bring natural gas from West Texas to California. The line, expanded and still in use today, comes into the state at Topock, crossing the Colorado River next to Interstate 40, then arcs through the middle of the state all the way up to Oregon, and now into Canada. This metal pipe, three feet in diameter, supplies dozens of gas-fired power plants in the state, many of which were owned by PG&E. The company had to sell them off in the 1990s due to deregulation policies.
This gas line has eight compressor stations in California to keep gas liquefied and flowing through the state. The chemical chromium-6 was used as a rust inhibitor in the cooling plants at these facilities, and during the 1950s and 1960s the material, now a known carcinogen, was disposed of into unlined waste ponds, where it slowly percolated into the groundwater.
At the Hinkley plant, the second compressor station after Topock, around 370 million gallons of wastewater containing chromium was dumped in ponds from 1952 to 1966, enough to generate a plume that covered a few square miles and reached hundreds of drinking water wells. Complaints about illness and even deaths caused by this led to the largest civil settlement of its kind, with PG&E paying hundreds of millions of dollars to affected families to avoid being sued. This was all made more famous by the 2000 Hollywood movie Erin Brockovich, about the lawyers working on behalf of Hinkley residents.
The 13 households in the area that were drawing water from the most contaminated part of the plume were among the first to settle and move away, and their land was quickly taken over by PG&E, and the homes razed, around 1993. The plume extends from that site, near the plant, for a few miles north, following the hydraulic grade, which heads towards Harper Dry Lake, a few miles past the Center’s Desert Research Station. How far north is a contested issue, since tiny amounts of hexavalent chromium occur naturally in the mineral-rich water of the desert.
Concentrations of chromium vary significantly, but for the most part are far below levels considered dangerous by the EPA: 100 parts per billion. California’s EPA sets the maximum contaminant level for chromium at 50 parts per billion. 2017 sampling of the hundreds of monitoring wells around Hinkley shows a few dozen with amounts higher than 100 parts per billion, and three test higher than 1,000, with one as high as 2,100. The well at the DRS had 2.6 parts per billion, low even for background levels, and low enough to suggest a gap between the two disputed distant parts of the plume.
The USGS is working on a five-year baseline study to understand the background levels of the chemical, and 600 test wells are monitored throughout the area by the local water district and the state, and contractors for PG&E. Project Navigator Incorporated, the company that is, in their words, controlling the strategic direction of this demanding environmental project, is managing the fallout for PG&E. The company, based in Brea, California, has a community office in Hinkley, and operates at many other environmental remediation and superfund sites around the country, including the Asarco plant at El Paso, and at Newark Bay, New Jersey.
Remediation efforts in the most affected areas include pumping ethanol into the ground to convert the chromium-6 into less harmful chromium-3. This process, some say, is causing other dangerous chemicals to become more concentrated in the groundwater. It could be decades before the clean up is complete, if it ever is. Settlements, though, seem to have stopped in 2008, after a total of around $650 million was paid out to affected parties, including cases at other compressor stations along the pipeline, especially at Kettleman Hills, the next one down the line from Hinkley. For the moment, Hinkley remains on the verge of existence. ♦