Residents of Hinkley, Calif., are facing a deadline today to decide whether to sell their homes to the power company that polluted their desert town, or stay and accept a water treatment system installed at no charge.
Pacific Gas & Electric is giving the choice to 314 homeowners who live within one mile of a chromium 6 contaminated plume. They have until the end of today to decide.
The contentious relationship between Hinkley and PG&E was sparked after scientists found hexavalent chromium 6 in the local wells, a result of pollution caused by the company's compressor station, after an investigation sparked by law clerk Erin Brockovich.
The power company agreed to a $333 million settlement with the town in 1997, but the cleanup of the chromium 6 and its pollutant by-products and the efforts to define the areas affected by the plume remain contentious issues between Hinkley residents and PG&E.
"We've been working with the Hinkley community for a couple of years and are listening to their concerns. This is why we started this offer," PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith told ABC News.
"In April 2012, we have expanded the eligibility to include 314 homeowners a mile wide from the plume with any presence of chromium levels," he said.
Some residents have said that the expansion of the area admitted by PG&E to be contaminated is an indication that the company is still polluting the area, but Smith said it's not that the pollutants are spreading, but that the company is spreading its testing.
"The reason we are finding more contaminated areas is because we are testing in areas that haven't been tested before and as a result the plume map keeps changing. But PG&E have stopped using the toxins since the 1960s," he said.
The cleanup itself has been a problem, however, some residents claim, because now new pollutants are plaguing the town.
"The clean-up of chromium is going on, but we are faced with a new problem, the by-products that result from the clean-up. Now arsenic, manganese, and other pollutants are showing up in our water and these are not being addressed by PG&E," Hinkely Elementary School Principal Larry Notario told ABC News.
"Also, the water fountains at our school have been shut off for a year while PG&E has been supplying us with bottled water," he said.
Defining the boundaries of the contaminated areas made many residents feel left out.
"I feel that they turned people against each other. Some are included in their program, some aren't. They really segregated us. I love living here but, like many other people, I fear the unknown," Theresa Schoffstall, who owns a home in Hinkley and has a business there, Sundance Roof Co., told ABC News.
In spring of 2011, PG&E formed a citizen advisory committee that oversees PG&E's cleanup of Hinkley's water supply. One leading community activist, Daron Hanks, has decided to end his fight with PG&E. He opted to sell his property.
"We were devastated when we found out that we had chromium in our water. Opting for the buyout was such a difficult decision to make," Hanks told ABC News. "My wife's family had been affected by the pollutants. Members of her family had cancer and Hodgkin's disease. We don't want our son to suffer from this."
As for the value of the properties whose owners have decided to sell, PG&E told ABC News that it is not appraising them based on the conditions at Hinkley, but as though they were in a normal town.
"Otherwise the value of the houses will be very low," Smith said. "We are treating the property as if it were in a neighboring town not having problems similar to Hinkley."
"I am in favor of PG&E buying homes. All of our homes are worthless," Schoffstall said. "I am struggling with selling my home and it has no value now."
Ray Pearce, his wife Cindy, and their son Randy have water contamination in their neighboring homes, but they decided to opt for the water supply replacement system rather than selling out.
"I own both my home and my son's home and for a total of 20 acres I don't think PG&E will give me enough to buy this much somewhere else," Ray Pearce told ABC News. "Besides, I don't want to leave my place. I was born in this house and I lived here for 57 years. If I wanted to leave I would have left a long time ago."
With the buyouts, there are fears that the town's already small population will dwindle.
"It all started in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In this community of 3,000-ish people we had somewhere between 500 to 600 kids attending. Over time, as PG&E bought people out, the student population dwindled to 277 students," Notario said.
"The best things about Hinkley is its elementary school," Banks said. "If the school goes, then Hinkley goes."
The complete figures of the sales will not be official until the end of the day.
"We do have initial data though," Smith said. "It is a 60-40 percent, with 60 percent opting to sell their property."