Erin Brockovich: the real-life unhappy ending of Hinkley, California, and a tale of science for sale

[Video Link. BB Editor's note: This blog post originally appeared at the PBS NewsHour site. Miles investigated this story for PBS NewsHour in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity (CPI). Go to their site for an in-depth look at how industry scientists stalled government action on chromium-6.]

HINKLEY, CALIFORNIA—We all love a neat, tidy Hollywood ending to a David and Goliath story. Sadly, in the real world, they are hard to come by. More often than not, the little guy might win a battle, but Goliath prevails over the long haul -- winning the war.

Before I went to Hinkley, I did, of course, watch the movie once again. As it turns out, Erin Brockovich is accurate in many respects.

Water that is heavily contaminated with chromium-6 turns bright yellow. Public utility testing shows more than 70 million Americans drink tap water tainted by chromium-6. Photo by Cameron Hickey.

You might remember the woman who gets a big check at the end of the movie after the down-on-her-luck, crusading legal assistant has brought a giant utility to its knees for polluting the groundwater beneath the tiny desert town half way between L.A. and Las Vegas.

In the movie, she was known as Donna Jensen (and played by Marg Helgenberger). There is no real-life Donna Jensen -- the details of her story are a composite of several real-life travails.

But Roberta Walker was the main inspiration. Naturally, it was not long after I met her that I asked her what she thought of the movie.

“Oh, it was a piece of crap,” she said. “The only true thing about the movie is that [Pacific Gas and Electric] poisoned us. We didn’t bring a giant to their knees obviously; we just woke them up -- woke up the dragon.”

Roberta is not allowed to say how much she got from the $333 million dollar settlement that gave the screenwriters such a nice bow to wrap up the movie. It was, however, enough to allow her and her husband to build a new home on a hill overlooking Hinkley.

“We loved it here, everything about it,” she told me. “The peace, the quiet, the privacy, and we built it. We had our well tested…and there was no chromium.”

But there is now. And Roberta is looking to move again -- out of Hinkley. But that does not guarantee she will find chromium-6 free water.

For the past 60 years, water polluted with chromium (VI) has plagued Hinkley, Calif., the desert town made famous by the film "Erin Brockovich." Although residents there won their lawsuit against the polluter, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., there’s still a debate over whether the compound causes cancer in drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency says yes, but industry scientists disagree. Image: PBS NewsHour

The real-life Erin Brockovich has moved onto the national stage as a consumer advocate and now curates a crowd-sourced map of reported cancer clusters. It is a real eye-opener. And it makes you wonder why environmental regulators don’t do this kind of thing.

A few years ago, The Environmental Working Group did a study of U.S. tap water, and it found a chrome-plated, potentially carcinogenic mess. They tested tap water samples from 35 cities and found chromium-6 in 31 of them.

The highest concentration EWG discovered, came from Norman, Oklahoma. But at nearly 13 parts per billion, the water there is still considered safe according to the 22-year-old EPA standard (100 ppb). It is, however, more than 600 times greater than the public health goal established by the California Environmental Protection Agency in the wake of the Hinkley well poisoning scandal.

Naturally, I was wondering about the tap water in my office/apartment in Bethesda, Maryland. Turns out it is .19 parts per billion (ppb.) That is ten times more Chromium-6 than the Cal/EPA public health goal.

I am a big proponent of tap water. I think the widespread use of bottled water is an environmental disaster. So I bought myself a countertop filter. And now I won’t drink anything straight from the tap anymore. I might soon upgrade to an under-sink model.

It is a shame that we cannot be more confident about the water that flows into our homes. Regulators at the state and federal level say they have to weigh public health concerns against the economic realities of tougher drinking water standards.

In the U.S., we have a Food and Drug Administration to ensure that any chemicals we ingest in the form of drugs are safe before they are allowed on the market.

Should we apply the same burden of proof to chemicals that are widely used by industry, which all too frequently poison our wells?

David Heath of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to the report.


  1. More than thankyou for drawing attention to this.  One tends to feel exactly as you describe – a bow was tied on it all, and everyone lived happily ever after.

    Now I guess more than ever – Ever Vigilant.

  2. My thanks too for this piece. 

    Can anyone provide an easy, relatively cheap way to get my tap water tested?

    I use a Brita filter now. Am I doing any good with it, or is that pretty much a delusion?

    1. Contact a local testing lab (not the ones who ADVERTISE the service to try to sell you treatment systems). They can tell you how to take a sample. Also, contact your water supplier for their latest testing results.

      The Brita removes only the chlorine taste. Does not do anything regarding metals or other contaminants.

      1. Brita removes only the chlorine taste.

        That’s provably not true. And Brita isn’t the only brand of water filter for consumers. That said, precisely what the filters are capable of filtering out varies widely by manufacturer and device.

        1. I was replying to the Brita filter statement. Brita claims it removes “common impurities” but it is primarily used for taste. I’ve not see good evidence to show it is highly effective for metals and if there is a metals problem, I would NOT rely on a Brita. Here is their page.

        2. Are we talking about European Brita filters (which are sold in North America as Mavea) or North American Brita filters, which are made with different technology by a different company that just licenses the trademark?

  3. Apparently the only way to remove chromium from tapwater is to use an expensive reverse-osmosis filter. Regular filters do not work.

      1. Carbon filters can of course remove heavy metals but are not a solution for processing large amounts of water because over a relatively brief time the carbon element becomes saturated and the heavy metals start flowing through it again. This is not the case with reverse osmosis filters, which do however consume a fairly significant amount of energy and which waste water on backflushing and the filter element does clog over time and have to be replaced — but they don’t leak heavy metals once clogged the way the carbon elements do. The “independent report” you referenced appears to be an advertisement for carbon filters. Cite: Chemistry 101 class in college :). (Some of us are actually scientifically educated, y’know). 

      2. From your link.

        > However, activated carbon cannot effectively remove common “inorganic” pollutants such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrate and perchlorate.

        >  Reverse osmosis can remove many contaminants not removed by activated carbon, including arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrates and perchlorate. However, reverse osmosis does not remove chlorine, trihalomethanes or volatile organic chemicals (VOCs).

      1. The filter replacement cost looks really, pleasantly low compared to our functional, but overly expensive Whirlpool RO system.  Sadly, there was no Costco near us when our old RO system finally became obsolete, so for now we’re stuck with a pricy one.

  4. I don’t like that he never states that the Chromium-6 in Norman’s water (it’s the well water, not the lake water) is natural. There had never been industry of the type to use that chemical in the amounts needed, let alone disposed of in the way needed, in any area close enough to our aquifer to have made it so high. We also had a problem with arsenic, and that was natural, too. I seem to recall reading at the time of that report that the levels of cancer reports in Hinkley, CA were never any higher than the national average. Don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure Norman, OK is the same.

    1. I seem to recall reading somewhere that you beat your wife. Don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere.

      1. I don’t think that was fair.  Joel’s raising a potentially valid objection and acknowledging the shortcomings of an argument based on recollection.  

        1. Sure, but what Joel is also doing is floating an unsubstantiated claim that disputes information which is central to this post, and then floating another hazily remembered claim, thereby implying that it’s up to others to find out whether or not his claims are true. Joel’s move riles me because it recalls so well the pernicious tactic used by purportedly objective news outlets: “Is it true that President Obama got nothing but C’s in college? We’ll find out, right after these messages.” 

          The question contains a claim that has no basis in reality, but the idea embedded in the claim nevertheless enters mainstream discourse. It’s not that Joel was trying to do the same thing, but the proximity to uselessness of his unsubstantiated claims is all too similar in the effect they have of raising unwarranted doubt.

          1. Well it is also true that depending on what part of the country you live in depends on how well copper pipes hold up.  Here in NC they will last decades, from what I’ve read on plenty of plumbing forums certain places will eat through copper in a matter of years.  It is certainly plausible that ground water where he lives contains high concentrations of naturally occurring chemicals that are dangerous to us.  True they needed a citation or something, but casually call them a wife beater doesn’t seem like the most effective way to go about it.

    2. Oh, it’s hardly natural. There are several old oil well sites that were not properly dismantled all over Oklahoma, specifically near Norman, Stilllwater, and many smaller towns in between. The amount of toxins leached into that red clay is staggering.

  5. Okay, if you’re going to bring up bottled versus tap water, you have to acknowledge that bottled water A) usually comes from someone’s tap water supply; and B) is often not tested to the same standards or frequency. The level of regulation varies wildly by state. But no one should think that bottled water comes from magically pure unicorn squeezings.

    1. “Magically Pure Unicorn Squeezings™, the refreshing new drink that all the kids love!”
      Sometimes I wish I was rich industrialist, just so I could make other people’s great ideas a reality.

    2. I prefer to think that bottled water comes from magically pure elemental squeezings, for that “elementally pure” taste. Unicorns may have many good points, but squeezings are not one of them.

    3. What you just posted needs to be broadcast widely and frequently.  Not every state considers soda bottlers to be a “water supply”, so they’re not necessarily conforming with the Clean Water Act requirements for drinking water safety.

  6. Even if cancer was 100% random, there would be cancer cluster. Random does not mean that the results are spread out evenly. So cancer cluster maps are at best a starting point, and at worst just get people scared, stressed and lowers property values.

    1. True, but the clusters are indicative. Given the size of the cancer cluster, it could be so statistically unlikely to be natural as to be a certainty that something is up.

    2. And the less random cancer incidence is (which is always less than 100%), the more statistically significant clusters become.

      But yeah, I see your point. Property values.

        1. Won’t someone think of the property values!

          Amity, as you know, means ‘friendship’.

    3. True and duly noted.  A truly random cluster of new diagnoses of cancer (as opposed to total diagnoses of cancer) would be highly unlikely, though, to persist over time.

      1. Barring local population differences.  One extended family could comprise a cluster of pancreatic or neck cancers based on their genetics.

    4. geostatistics isn’t exactly a new field, and models with spatial correlation are de rigeur these days. there’s more to it than “hurrr, lots of cases! panic! crush capitalism!”

  7. EPA says 100 ppb is safe. California says .02 is safe. What does the scientific literature say? Just because the EPA standard is old, that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. It could be, probably is, but I don’t know.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. We’re measuring thing in the parts per BILLION here, usually dealing with polution or toxins we talk about parts per MILLION. Its hard to express just how miniscule the amounts of chromium-6 we’re talking about are. Its entirely possible that its just that dangerous, especially since heavy metals tend to build up in the system. But I’d be curious see what the established safe threshold is.

      And I’m saying this as some one who grew up on well water in a town where the well water was often not safe to drink. We had heavy infiltration of fertilizers and pesticides into the ground water, and a well established connection between that ground water and our astronomical breast cancer rates. We’re talking the school water fountains had warning signs with dosage reccomendations hanging over them. Town hall had a map of water safety broken down by lot. My house was one of 4 on my street considered safe for human consumption, and the water still developed a noticable chemical film when left standing.

      I also don’t see where the “science for sale” from the headlines comes in.

    2. My first reply disappeared. So I’ll try again.

      It is widely known that ingested Cr6 is broken down in the human GI tract by gastric juices to non-dangerous Cr3. The question then becomes what is the capacity of a human stomach to process what amount of Cr6?  The result seem to suggest a normal stomach is able to handle   Cr6  of up to 1 liter of water containing 10.0 mg/liter of Cr6.

      That’s a lot of Cr6.

  8. No one else shocked by the passing reference to PG&E now producing so much alfalfa on the contaminated land that they opened a dairy farm? Presumably they feed the cows the alfalfa…

  9. It is worth pointing out that hexavalent chromium must be inhaled, not ingested, in order to cause cancer. 

    There are a lot of studies looking at the potential dangers of it in water supplies, but none have yet to conclusively show any danger.

    1. It is worth pointing out that hexavalent chromium must be inhaled, not ingested, in order to cause cancer.

      We don’t know that yet. Science hasn’t conclusively proven that there isn’t danger in the ingestion of hex-chrom in drinking water. 

      Watch part 2 tonight. 

    2.  Would the steam in a shower with hexavalent chromium contaminated water be an issue?  I have no idea, but I do have showers and there is often steam involved.  I doubt it reaches a high enough temperature to function as a distiller.

    3. People don’t water their lawns or wash their dishes anymore? Mop their tile floors with tap water and detergent?

  10. “In the U.S., we have a Food and Drug Administration to insure that any chemicals we ingest in the form of drugs are safe before they are allowed on the market”
    The FDA is proposing genetically engineered salmon that could make our wild salmon extinct, genetically engineered Eucalyptus [watch “Silent Forest” free on Netflix for the implications of a monoculture forest, sterile of all other life, and more of their GMO corn. Even thought half of our traditional corn is now contaminated with unwanted GMO DNA.
    The premise is that the GMOs are ‘substantially equivalent’ to traditionals, so require no labeling or FDA testing.
    Now you are proposing putting the FDA in charge of water?????FDA: Fails Doing Anything…. useful.

  11. I have a small lab, and I am a bit reckless with the chemicals. I don’t put on gloves to handle the strong acids. I maybe should, but I don’t.

    But I wear gloves with hexavalent chromium. I’ve only once open the bottle. That’s how toxic I consider the stuff.

    Thus, you can imagine my disgust with stories like that of Hinkley, or more recently of Qatmat Ali:

    Recklessness to the point of sociopathy.

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