"Toxics Suit Cites PG&E in 4 Deaths."

January 01, 2000  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  the Business Press/California  ·  Brockovich, erin

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is facing a second lawsuit accusing the utility of failing to tell residents of a small community near Barstow about a cancer-causing agent the company allegedly let seep into local groundwater supplies.

The suit, filed last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges that PG&E — whose $333 million settlement with Hinkley residents in 1996 inspired the movie Erin Brockovich — supplied water tainted with chromium 6 to the all-volunteer Hinkley Fire Department.

According to the suit, PG&E used water containing chromium 6 between 1952 and 1965 to cool pipes that became heated during gas compression. The tainted water was then discharged into local groundwater supplies and used by local residents and the fire department, according to the suit.

The lawsuit also alleges that PG&E was aware that chromium 6, a known carcinogen, was potentially dangerous to anyone exposed to it.

Bakersfield attorneys Mike Dolan and Tom Anton filed the suit — which includes four wrongful death claims — in July on behalf of 56 plaintiffs. One of those plaintiffs, Gloria Darling, is a Barstow City Council member. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

Darling said she lived in the small community of Hinkley, located about 10 miles north of Barstow, during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The councilwoman spared no words in a blistering assessment of the public utility.

"PG&E is like a serial killer," Darling said. "They’re a $9 billion company and they’ve murdered people, but no one has been sent to jail."

Company spokesman Jon Tremayne said the company won’t comment on the issue until it has been served with the lawsuit.

The suit, which seeks a jury trial, was filed in Los Angeles because defendant Betz Chemical Corp. is based there, Dolan said. Betz Chemical manufactured the chromium 6 used by PG&E’s Hinkley plant, he said.

As early as 1965, PG&E knew that some of its discharged water was contaminated with chromium 6, but company officials didn’t tell anyone, said Dolan.

PG&E was required by state law to inform the fire department about such circumstances, the attorney said. Fire department members, in the course of making domestic calls to Hinkley residents, sometimes put PG&E-supplied water into residents’ swimming pools and water tanks, Dolan added.

Darling said she remembers her son, who was about 5 at the time, suffering severe nosebleeds while swimming at a PG&E recreational pool open to the public. Other children suffered similar nosebleeds, but Darling said she and other parents at the time attributed the problem to desert heat.

Dolan added that a large number of Hinkley women and men, some younger than 25, had hysterectomies or suffered from prostate cancer.

"We’ve seen some horrible cancer clusters," Darling said.

Darling said the plaintiffs were concerned about finding a law firm that wouldn’t be intimidated by the high cost of trying the case. Dolan said he and Anton will see the action through to its conclusion.

The movie Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts, told the story of an aggressive legal assistant who worked for Westlake Village attorney Ed Masry. Brockovich did most of the research that led to PG&E’s 1996 multimillion-dollar settlement with Hinkley residents.

As for Dolan and Anton’s lawsuit, Masry said he wished both men the best, but said their work is probably an extension of his firm’s original case. "But they’re welcome to it," he said. "I wish them luck."

Masry said he is working on a second lawsuit against PG&E, studying claims from more than 2,000 would-be plaintiffs. That suit could be filed within six weeks, he said.

Dolan dismissed a Wall Street Journal story of March 28 that questioned the connection between the PG&E plant and the health problems suffered by Hinkley residents over the years.

"It’s a dangerous story, full of misinformation," Dolan said.

According to The Wall Street Journal story, no one toxic agent could have caused all of the symptoms described in Masry’s original lawsuit. The water contaminated by chromium 6 "almost certainly didn’t cause any of them," reporter Michael Fumento contends in the story.

The story also claimed that chromium 6 is a carcinogen only when inhaled, and that much of the medical evidence that allegedly contradicts the original suit was uncovered after the $333 million settlement.

Read the original Wall Street Journal article, "Erin Brockovich, Exposed" and longer version of the article, "The Dark Side of Erin Brockovich" (The National Post, March 29, 2000).

Read reactions to Fumento’s article: