HINKLEY, Calif. – A California state study has not revealed elevated cancer levels in the town of Hinkley, a small desert community that inspired the award-winning Hollywood movie "Erin Brockovich" through its struggles with contaminated groundwater.
The California Cancer Registry has completed three studies on Hinkley, where a toxic plume of cancer-causing chromium 6 is once again growing. The studies found that cancer rates remained unremarkable from 1988 to 2008.
The results were first reported Monday by the Los Angeles Times.
Epidemiologist John W. Morgan says the 196 cases of cancer reported during the most recent survey of 1996 through 2008 were less than what he would expect based on demographics and the regional rate of cancer.
"This is an area that has been an area of concern in the past," Morgan said, explaining what prompted the study.
The 2000 movie focused on Pacific Gas & Electric's $333 million settlement with more than 600 Hinkley residents over chromium contamination. Sick residents blamed the contaminated water for a variety of health problems including cancer.
Many people moved on with their lives after the 1996 case and subsequent movie. In 2008, however, the plume began spreading and despite efforts by PG&E to stem the problem, tests in March showed it was growing again.
The plume is now more than two miles long and a mile wide. Residents are worried, even though current chromium levels remain low enough to not violate current drinking water standards.
PG&E has been giving affected residents bottled water and has sent letters to about 100 property owners expressing interest in possibly buying their property. The company will continue with those efforts despite this recent report, PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer said.
"Regardless of what statistics are showing, we know people in that community are concerned," he said. "We're committed to helping them in whatever way we can."
That message, however, rings hollow with people such as Elaine and Gregory Kearney, who live about a mile from the official boundaries of the plume. Private water testing showed elevated chromium levels, they said, but the utility company has refused to buy their property.
The family has a litany of health problems. Elaine Kearney has heart disease and has had seven mini-strokes. She and her husband are taking care of one daughter who has advanced lung cancer and have another who had multiple miscarriages before giving birth to a mentally disabled son.
Even their dog, Pinkie, is covered in tumors.
Kearney choked up as she recalled bringing home bottles of Hinkley water when the family used to vacation in the desert decades earlier, before moving there. At the time she thought it was fresh.
"It's real hard on a mom," she said, "Your kids aren't supposed to die before you."