The Plaintiffs



The Plaintiffs:  The Citizens of Hinkley, California


Seventy seven residents of  Hinkley, California sued Pacific Gas and Electic Company. The plantiffs believed that PG&E's negligance in handling chromium VI lead to the diseases the citzens suffered from.  


History - How Hinkley Became Aware of Chromium VI Poisoning:


The residents of Hinkley became aware of  the dangers of chromium VI when Erin Brockovich exposed a connection between real estate documents and medical records. The real estate documents showed PG&E's purchace of multiple pieces of Hinkley property. In addition there was evidence that 75% of the houses and buildings PG&E bought were destroyed due to the company’s response to vandalism. (Erin Brockovich ... [updated 1999]). These records caught Brockovich’s attention due to the fact that they were filed with medical records indicating respiratory problems experienced by Hinkley residents. Brockovich believed that PG&E was covering up some sort of contamination by buying and destroying the properties. Upon further investigation, she discovered additional documents that exposed that on December 7, 1987 officials from PG&E advised the State of California they had detected levels of hexavalent chromium (chrome VI) in a groundwater monitoring well north of the compressor station's waste water ponds. The levels were ten times greater than the maximum amount allowed by law. 


Chromium VI and Its Link to Medical Problems:


Chromium VI has been considered a cancer causing chemical since the 1920s. (Lasalandran and McCluskey 2004). Chromium VI is especially dangerous to the lungs and is linked to many respiratory problems.  The residents of Hinkley "experienced a disturbing array of health problems: liver, heart, respiratory, and reproductive failure, cancer of the brain, kidney, breast, uterus, and gastrointesitnal system, Hodgkin disease, frequent miscarriages, and more (Pellerin 2000). The animals in the area were sick and dying as well. Even the trees and plant life in Hinkley were suffering due to the contaminated water (Lansalandran and McCluskey 2004). Researchers at Brown University discovered that when chromium VI comes into contact with naturally occurring vitamin C in human cells it causes massive amounts of DNA damage (Reynolds 2007). A low dose of chromium VI in combination with vitamin C produces up to fifteen times as many chromosomal breaks and up to ten times as many mutations as cells that lack vitamin C (Reynolds 2007). These forms of genetic damage lead to cancer. The people of Hinkley ingested massive amounts of chromium VI over decades and with the combination of naturally occurring vitamin C it caused various forms cancer.


Evidence Plantiff's Presented Aganist PG&E:


PG&E's Cover Up


PG&E began its cover up through the hiding of documents including the ones that Erin Brokovich discovered. They claim that they warned people about the contamination of the water and acknowledge that they knew that chromium VI had leaked in. Their way of informing people about the problem was through fliers that left out key information and mislead the people of Hinkley about the effects of chromium VI. These fliers did not include which type of chromium the people were exposed to and the dangers of the certain type they did use. They stated that, “Chromium occurs in two forms. The form that is present in groundwater can cause health effects in high doses. The cleanup program, however, will result in chromium levels that meet the very conservative drinking water standards set by the EPA". In addition, the form of chromium that will be left on soils after irrigation is nontoxic. In fact, chromium in this form is a naturally occurring metal that is an essential ingredient in the human diet, one that is often included in multiple vitamin/mineral supplements” (Erin Brockovich ... [updated 1999]). In this statement PG&E used wording that portrayed there was no health risk to the people. They persuaded people to believe that this toxin was a good thing and they shouldn’t be worried in the slightest about potential risks. An actual plaintiff at the trial stated that, "the flyer might have invited a person to "sprinkle some on your morning cereal."  This is ironic because the opposite is true, sprinkling it on your cereal would probably cause extreme health effects including the ultimate danger of death (Erin Brockovich ... [updated 1999]). Through the distribution of these fliers PG&E tried to hide the truth about chromium poisoning in an effort to cover up their responsibility for the damages done to the residents of Hinkley’s health.


PG&E's Failure to Prevent Further Exposure


PG&Es failure to properly label their flyer with the appropriate dangerous type of chromium was not the only information that they failed to communicate to the local community. The flyer implied that the detection of contamination at the compressor station was a new development. The contamination was not newly discovered because PG&E first knew about it at least by1965. They had been contaminating the water during the 60s, 70s, and 80s and did nothing to inform or prevent further exposure (Lasalandra and McCluskey 2004). Until 1972, “PG&E had knowingly released 370 million gallons of Cr(VI)-contaminated wastewater into the unlined ponds” (Pellerin 2000). Due to the inability of PG&E to resist using chromium VI it was allowed to leak into into Hinkley’s groundwater (Pellerin 2000). Their negligence caused the community to experience a long term massive exposure to a dangerous toxin when they could have prevented the level of damage.  Erin Brockovich ... [updated 1999])


PG&E's Corruption of Data


PG&E further attempted to corrupt the evidence against them by distorting a previous medical study on chromium IV’s carcinogenic effects in order to divert their responsibility for what happened to the victims. In their attempt to manipulate evidence PG&E persuaded a respected Chinese scientist to participate in an update of his 1987 study that found a link between chromium-contaminated water in rural China and an increase in villagers’ cancer rates (Smith 2006). In the new study paid for by PG&E environmental consultants wrote the article rather than the scientist that performed the study. The study found that there was no link between increased rates of cancer and chromium IV poisoning (Smith 2006). The results were questionable not only because it was paid for and the scientist who completed the research did not write it but also because incorrect epidemiological terms were used and the researcher’s name was misspelled multiple times (Smith 2006).



Case Study 1