The Social Parameters of Groundwater Contamination: A Case Study

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November 27, 2013 by Alexis

In late 1992, a box of documents was dropped onto the desk of a young legal clerk named Erin Brockovich. The documents contained a young woman’s abnormal test results along with formal offers made by a local gas and electric corporation to buy the resident’s home, and the unusual mix of information prompted Brockovich to dig deeper into the case. She could not have known at the time that she was about to unearth an environmental disaster that was harming not only the natural surroundings of Hinkley, California, but also the lives of hundreds of people that called the town home.

Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, a company called Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) poisoned the groundwater of Hinkley with hexavalent chromium, a deadly chemical compound that was ultimately responsible for the illnesses of hundreds of locals. The process of bringing PG&E to justice, however, was long and grueling due to the fact that the case involved many social dimensions that are often overlooked when confronting such sustainability challenges. The damage done by the Hinkley groundwater contamination not only affected the environment itself; the actions of PG&E that led to the contamination, the role Erin Brockovich played in settling the case, and the impacts the contamination had on the residents quickly turned the environmental disaster into a social one.

History of the Contamination

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) was founded in California in 1905 and is a subsidiary of Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation. Today the company provides electricity to 5.1 million customers and natural gas to 4.3 million customers (Pacific, 2009).

Starting in 1952, PG&E’s compressor station, located two miles southeast of Hinkley, began using a dangerous chemical compound known as chromium 6 in their pumping plant’s cooling towers as an anticorrosive inhibitor. This chromium 6, or hexavalent chromium, quickly became a part of the water used in the cooling towers. The contaminated water would then be discarded onto the ground “into unlined pools from which it was leaching into the aquifer that was the town’s drinking water” (Brockovich, 2002). This cycle went on until 1966 – a total of 14 years. However, the contamination didn’t stop there. Because the pools had not been lined, the leakage continued on a daily basis, year after year, and residents consumed hexavalent chromium whenever they drank water, took showers, turned on swamp coolers (a primary source of air-conditioning in Hinkley), or turned on their sprinklers (Brockovich, 2002).

In 1977, the state of California passed a chromoium-6 regulation law, referred to as a “National Interim Drinking Water Standard”. Under this law, the maximum legal contaminant level for hexavalent chromium was established as 50-micrograms per liter (µg/L) (California, 2013). However, it was estimated that “Hinkley’s ground water contained concentrations as high as 580 parts per billion, more than 10 times California’s current drinking water standard” (Cone, 2009). This discovery was made in 1987, and when PG&E became aware that the state of California had been informed of the contamination, the company began offering to buy the homes of residents that had been affected by the poisoned groundwater (Brockovich, 2002). This was done in an effort to push the now sickly citizens off the land and thus conceal the consequences of the leaked chromium 6.

One of the most astonishing facts about this groundwater contamination case study is that PG&E, already unintentionally responsible for the trauma and sickness of many residents, held seminars for the townspeople that addressed the issue of chromium. Backed by PG&E Corporation, the local PG&E workers informed Hinkley citizens that the anticorrosive inhibitor they used was actually not dangerous in normal quantities. The truth is alarming and puts into perspective the powerful impact humans can have in an environmental disaster: in the seminars, PG&E referred to chromium 3, or trivalent chromium, which is in fact a nutrient for humans and is genuinely safe for consumption. In reality, PG&E was using the dangerous hexavalent chromium to preserve their cooling towers, a fact that they repeatedly failed to mention as people within miles of the planet continued to get sicker and sicker.

Discovery: Erin Brockovich’s Role

A single mother struggling to provide for her children, Erin Brockovich began working for law firm Masry and Vititoe in 1992 after she was hit by a doctor in a car accident and hired the firm to represent her. After badly losing the case due to a competing lawyer that was excellent at lying for the guilty defendant, she desperately asked law firm founder Ed Masry for employment. Reluctantly, he agreed.

Many things could have occurred to prevent the ultimate reveal of PG&E’s groundwater contamination. Had Brockovich not been in a car accident, she might have never been introduced to Masry and Vititoe and would have never started working for them. Had she not been at her desk the day Ed Masry dropped off a box of documents and asked her to file them, or had Masry had asked anyone else to deal with the documents that day, the odd combination of real estate offers and medical records in one file might have never been questioned. More importantly, had Brockovich not have had the perseverance to push ahead despite the fact that she had no formal education, had struggled with dyslexia in the past, and faced judgment from her coworkers due to her looks, she might not have asked to investigate the case further. In hindsight, it was Brockovich’s instinct that told her something was wrong that began the four years of litigation between the residents of Hinkley, represented by Masry and Vititoe, and PG&E.

Additionally, it was Brockovich’s caring nature that ultimately convinced the citizens of Hinkley that they were drinking contaminated water and that they needed to fight the giant corporation that had poisoned them. Cold facts and heartless consultation was not going to motivate sick residents to take a stance. Years of experience of caring for her children gave Brockovich a certain warmth that the residents were drawn to immediately, and her genuine compassion for the plaintiffs encouraged them to trust Masry and Vititoe with the monumental task of suing PG&E.

“My long struggle had resulted in a level of victory that enabled me to rediscover the essential moral and spiritual qualities I had first learned in childhood,” Brockovich stated in her 2002 book, Take It From Me. “[They were] values that I had for many years misplaced and allowed to lie dormant until they were finally reawakened by my being allowed by Ed Masry and his law firm to take on PG&E” (Brockovich, 2002).

Erin Brockovich, through her determination to see justice served, had put a human face to one of many sustainability challenges. She brought to life the very real truth that environmental disasters do not only affect planet Earth, but they change the lives of innocent people.

Social Parameters: Impacts on the Residents

The focus of a sustainability challenge is very often on the environment itself. For example, scientists and researchers might give more attention to issues such as ecosystem damage, atmospheric changes, or air, ground, or water pollution rather than focusing on what the original problem has done to local residents. However, as proven by Hinkley vs. PG&E, because humans must utilize the environment to survive, complicated and negative social consequences are bound to happen whenever such a challenge occurs.

Many years of illnesses preceded the day Erin Brockovich, Ed Masry, and the citizens of Hinkley eventually won the lengthy lawsuit against PG&E. When humans consume contaminated water such as the water Hinkley citizens had been taking in for years, the chemical compound acts as a carcinogen and causes irreversible damage (Paustenbach et. al., 2003). Hexavalent chromium has been known to be responsible for lung cancer, kidney and liver damage, nose, throat, and lung irritation, respiratory, digestive, and reproductive failure, and eye and skin damage (Occupational, 2009). All of these symptoms were found among the 634 Hinkley plaintiffs including many other kinds of cancer such as prostate, cervical, breast, and stomach. Furthermore, hexavalent chromium damage modifies human DNA, so sick residents passed diseases and complications onto their children. Additionally, many women had miscarriages or underwent hysterectomies due to cancer (Brockovich, 2002). Thus, the fertility rate within the town stopped increasing. Considering the fact that several people had left Hinkley due to PG&E buying their homes, the population in Hinkley dipped significantly during the years PG&E poisoned the town’s drinking water.

It must be noted that extensive debate followed the claims as PG&E lawyers tried to prove that the problems of the residents had not actually been caused by hexavalent chromium. The lawyers failed in their quest to clear PG&E of all charges. In 1996, the case was settled through binding arbitration, a legal tactic that involves solving disputes quickly and without a jury, only a judge whose decision is final and cannot be appealed. Binding arbitration worked in favor of the Hinkley plaintiffs; PG&E was forced to pay $333 million to the residents, the largest settlement in a direct-action lawsuit in the history of the United States (Brockovich, 2002).


As of 2002, 50 people of the original 634 plaintiffs that filed a lawsuit against PG&E with the help of Masry and Vititoe have died from causes related to the contamination (Brockovich, 2002). These types of consequences of such an environmental tragedy, caused and aggravated by human error, are not confined to what happened in Hinkley. Illness and fertility and population decline occur daily all over the world due to toxic waste, pollution, deforestation, and other sustainability challenges. Deaths due to environmental disasters have been happening long before PG&E began using hexavalent chromium as an anticorrosive in their cooling towers, and as long as these types of challenges continue to exist, there will be more to come in the future. Additionally, the actions of Pacific Gas and Electric Company represent the anthropocentric viewpoint that many people – corporations and individuals alike – share about the natural world. The idea that the needs of humans were more important than the health of the environment was what began the groundwater contamination in the first place and ultimately caused devastating environmental and social repercussions.

The solution lies in promoting education that raises awareness about such anthropocentric consequences. Legal restrictions are not likely to stop a multi-billion dollar corporation from causing such societal harm and trauma, as is evidenced by PG&E’s disregard for California’s 1977 “National Interim Drinking Water Standard” (California, 2013). Those that are aware of the results of sustainability challenges and, indeed, those that have been shown the importance of upholding ethical values, are among those that will do whatever it takes to find solutions. Erin Brockovich excelled at raising awareness about the groundwater contamination in Hinkley and inspiring the increasingly ill townsfolk to take legal action. Her commitment to uncovering the truth is a shining example of the fact that armed with knowledge, anybody can change and even prevent tragic circumstances.

PG&E’s groundwater contamination was not the first environmental catastrophe to affect the lives of humans nor will it be the last, nor will the legal battle between the residents of Hinkley and PG&E be the last fight for justice for those who had been wronged. It is essential that general awareness of the complexity of environmental disasters and a deep concern for the wellbeing of both humans and the environment be rooted into the lives of people all over the world. If this had been made a priority within individual communities, perhaps the town of Hinkley could have been saved, for as triumphant as the $333 million settlement was at the time for the residents who had been poisoned, the end of the case in 1996 is not the end of the town’s sad story.

In early 2013, PG&E informed the dwindling residents of Hinkley that it would take another 40 years to completely remove hexavalent chromium from the groundwater (Richard, 2013). This was and remains to be little comfort to those left in the town because most citizens are quickly leaving in order to escape further toxic exposure. Despite the hard work of Erin Brockovich and Masry and Vititoe, the residents’ lives had been irreversibly changed by the groundwater contamination.

The town of Hinkley, once a beloved community and the home to hundreds of happy, healthy residents, is likely to become a ghost town within the next ten years (Richard, 2013).


Brockovich, E. (2002). Take It From Me: Life’s a Struggle But You Can Win. New York: McGraw-Hill.

California Department of Public Health. (2013). Chromium-6 in Drinking Water: MCL Update. Retrieved from

Cone, M. (2009, February 20). Chromium in Drinking Water Causes Cancer: National Toxicology Program results “clearly” indicate that the heavy metal is carcinogenic. Scientific American. Retrieved from

Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (2009). Hexavalent Chromium. Retrieved from

Pacific Gas and Electirc Company. (2009). Company Profile. Retrieved from

Paustenbach, D.J., Finley, B.L., Mowat, F.S. & Kerger, B.D. (2003). Human health risk and exposure assessment of chromium (VI) in tap water [Abstract]. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A, 66(14), 1295-339.

Richard, C. (2013, May 6). Unhappy Ending for ‘Erin Brockovich’ Town. Voice of America. Retrieved from


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