Three-hundred-and-thirty-three million dollars.
That is, by any possible measure, a truly enormous sum of money. Just think about one more time, $333 million – it is nothing short of vast.
And what’s more, in 1996 when this fortune came to be, that money stretched even further – it even surpassed the entire GDP of the nation of Bhutan with more than $12 million to spare. At that time, it was also the largest sum of money ever paid out in a direct-action lawsuit in US history.
Are you interested yet?
Well here’s the tale of a tiny town in the middle of the California desert, and the one woman who made it her mission to fight for what was right.
The Middle of the Mojave
PHOTO OF HINKLEY/MOJAVE
Any way you cut it, Hinkley was a tiny town. In 1990, the census reported it as having just 2,285 residents, but even that was probably a stretch when you consider that Hinkley is barely considered a town in its own right. They had a school, a few stores, and little else. Everything was simply small in this rough and tumble plot of the Mojave Desert.
But, the one thing that Hinkley did have going for it was just that – its location.
From the 1950s, the Pacific Electric & Gas Company used the tiny town as a the starting point to carry natural gas up through the state from it’s genesis in Arizona. All together, 40,000 miles of distribution pipelines and over 6,000 miles of transportation pipelines serving 4.2 million customers from Bakersfield to the Oregon border traversed the length of California after passing through Hinkley. At the compression station in Hinkley, PG&E Hexavalent Chromium (also known as Chromium-6) was added to the “cooling waters” that were used to help the gas along on it’s journey; however, once this was done, the company simply disposed of this contaminated water nearby without properly taking care to keep the chromium out of the local environment.
By the 1990s, this dumping had died out, having only been done between 1952 and 1966 but these years of contamination had already taken a deep toll. Groundwater contamination can have a long lasting impact, as the contaminants do not simply disappear, but rather fester and continue to linger in the supply.
In the early ‘90s, local residents began to realize something: they were getting sick – sick a lot and with very serious illnesses. Hinkley residents were getting cancers and other serious illnesses at a much higher rate than elsewhere, with many reporting breast cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, miscarriages and spinal deterioration.
As we know now, Chromium-6 poisoning can have a great number of terrible effects, such as a bevy of childhood illnesses and growth issues as well as the aforementioned cancers, but at that time the toxin was thought to have been harmless. After a 1987 study pegged Hexavalent Chromium directly to cancer, it’s status as a dangerous carcinogen began to be known.
A later study disputed the validity of the Hinkley cluster, but ultimately it’s agreed that the town’s small size (among other political concerns) makes evaluating this situation extremely tricky.
Ultimately though, it is widely agreed that Chromium-6 is a powerful and dangerous toxin, for aversion from the water supply is a pressing public health issue.
Hinkley’s Day in Court
In 1993, the issue of groundwater contamination was brought to the attention of high-powered lawyer Edward L. Massry, by a legal clerk at his firm named Erin Brockovich. A young single mother-of-three, Ms. Brockovich first came to Mr. Massry’s attention after he represented her in court over a traffic accident she had been in. Afterward, she began working at the firm, when a routine case for Pacific Gas & Energy grabbed her attention.
After an unusual meeting with a Hinkley resident, Ms. Brockovich began putting together a complex puzzle. Through her relentless investigation, she was able to prove that PG&E not only knew about the chromium that had tainted Hinkley’s groundwater supply, but moreover was trying to hide it.
After a yeas long process of digging into the local community’s medical woes, Ms. Brockovich won over their trust and pieced together a massive class-action suit of 650 plaintiffs. Ultimately, the suit was sent to arbitration, where it faced a continually protracted legal battle. This case was the ultimate David and Goliath, with the sick residents of Hinkley seemingly outmatched at every move by the giant utility company.
Ultimately, PG&E decided to settle after two years of binding arbitration led to awards of $121 million to 39 plaintiffs. Under the terms of the arbitration, the company could have been required to pay up to $400 million, but was ultimately found liable to pay the record $333 million sum. While the battle looked unsurmountable at first, Brockovich found a smoking gun – a memo showing that the utility company had known about the pollution since the early 1960s.
With their settlements in hand, many Hinkley residents moved away from their plots in the desert, but still some did remain. Over time, PG&E continued to offer buyouts for many in the community, which more-and-more residents are accepting. This has taken an obvious toll on Hinkley’s population. The school closed a few years back, as did the grocery store and gas station. Ultimately, there is little left In Hinkley, and it’s all down to the dangerous contamination that left the town’s residents sick and forced them to abandon their homes. What it all comes down to is this: Hinkley is dying, and the cause is Chromium-6 poisoning.