Back in 1991, a young paralegal poking around in some real estate files noticed a peculiar concentration of cancer in tiny Hinkley, CA.
The rest was almost history.
Erin Brockovich’s find led to Pacific Gas and Electric Company, whose compressor station, California state investigators determined , had polluted the soil and groundwater with millions of gallons of wastewater contaminated with toxic hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6. In 1996, the giant utility settled with 600 Hinkley residents for $333 million, a U.S. record.
But moviegoers who watched Julia Roberts’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Brockovich’s triumph might be surprised to learn that California authorities are only now getting around to setting a “safe” maximum for chromium-6 in tap water, estimated to affect 20 million to 33 million Californians. On Oct. 19, state officials set up shop in Oakland to hear Bay area citizens voice their views.
Front and center were Environmental Working Group and other environmentalists, including Brockovich.
“Wow, it’s been 18 years since I started working to fight this poison, and we’re finally looking at trying to set standards,” Brockovich said, according to The Oakland Tribune. “It’s high time we had stricter standards, better regulation and definitely more enforcement.”
Renee Sharp, director of EWG’s California office, told a press conference that a major reason for the long delay was “industry skullduggery.” A 2005 EWG investigation, entitled Chrome-Plated Fraud, documented how a consulting firm in the pay of Pacific Gas and Electric had distorted a key study to minimize the danger of chromium-6 contamination in food and water. The altered study influenced a blue-ribbon panel to advise California authorities against attempting to regulate chromium-6 in tap water.
After EWG exposed the consultant’s actions and conflicts of interest, California officials reopened the issue, culminating last August in a proposed safety goal for chromium-6 of .06 parts per billion in drinking water. Once the goal is established, regulators plan to embark on a rule-making process to set a legally enforceable upper limit for chromium-6 in the state’s water supply.
Sharp said the new goal, if translated into a legal cap, should afford Californians far more protection than the current state limit of 50 parts per billion total chromium in drinking water and also the federal safe drinking water rule of 100 parts per billion total chromium.
EWG contends that regulating total chromium fails to distinguish between dangerous chromium-6 compounds, which the U.S. government lists as known human carcinogens when inhaled, and less toxic forms of chromium , including chromium-3, a trace mineral considered essential for health. Both human and animal research, including a definitive 2007 study by the National Toxicology Program , links chromium-6 in drinking water to cancer
“Chromium-6 in drinking water is a carcinogen and should be specifically regulated,” Sharp said. “Right now, it’s really not. The state and federal standards are way out of date and not nearly strong enough to protect public health.”
Sharp said EWG would like to see the proposed safety goal lowered to reflect new state guidelines that call for more rigorous assessment of early life exposures to suspected carcinogens. “Otherwise, the special risks to California’s children won’t be adequately addressed,” Sharp said. She also noted that some scientists suggest a lower chromium-6 cap is needed to protect adults with compromised health
But for the present, she said, California deserves environmentalists’ support as the first state to move toward regulating chromium-6 pollution in drinking water.
Photo: Renee Sharp, EWG, and Erin Brockovich