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Still Toxic After All These Years

Grist / EuToch / Getty Images / Alison Cassidy

Still Toxic After All These Years

Nearly a quarter-century after winning millions from PG&E, the ‘Erin Brockovich’ town continues its fight for clean water.

It was a sweltering, 117-degree July day in Hinkley, California. The surface of the 13-mile highway east to Barstow had become an asphalt skillet, and the town’s lone recreational feature, a children’s playscape, stood shining and unused like a monument to the lofty melting point of low-density polyethylene. Residents here appreciate the dry, desert landscape — that’s why many moved to Hinkley in the first place — but on days like this everyone takes refuge indoors, curtains drawn against the view of empty lots where neighbors’ houses once stood. Along the empty roads, thousands of pipe stubs — groundwater monitoring wells installed by Pacific Gas and Electric — began to look like air vents to some underground bunker where most everyone in town had retreated.

Despite the oppressive weather, a small group of residents had gathered at the community center for a workshop on bioremediation, basically how to remove chemical contamination from their land and water. These workshops are a regular occurrence here and broach topics like isotope analysis, well testing techniques, and the best ways to navigate the political machinations between oversight organizations. Hinkley-dwellers’ interest in these subjects is more based on survival than scientific curiosity; they want to make sure no one can pull the wool over their eyes again.

Hinkley is still best known as the “Erin Brockovich town.” In 1996 a group of residents famously won a massive direct-action arbitration against Pacific Gas and Electric with the help of Brockovich, a savvy single mom and Los Angeles legal clerk.

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