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Utility offers to buy homes amid chemical plume concerns

By Dan Simon, CNN
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'Erin Brockovich' town still poisoned
  • Utility says it will establish a community advisory group
  • Hinkley became famous from the Oscar winning film "Erin Brockovich" starring Julia Roberts
  • In the movie, a paralegal, helps win a $333 million settlement from PG&E

Hinkley, California (CNN) -- Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility company at the center of a long standing water contamination problem in this small agricultural town, is trying to soothe growing unease by offering to buy homes located near a chemical plume

In a letter to residents, which was also provided to CNN, the utility also said it will establish a community advisory group to "more consistently hear concerns and feedback from the community."

The town of Hinkley became famous from the Oscar winning film "Erin Brockovich" starring Julia Roberts.

The movie, released in 2000, chronicles how Brockovich, a paralegal, helped win a $333 million settlement from PG&E. Brockovich has been talking with residents about their renewed concerns.

"I'm thinking somebody somewhere has been asleep at the wheel," she told CNN.

The problem arose after a chemical known as chromium 6 seeped into the groundwater. Chromium 6 was used between 1952 and 1966 to prevent rust in machinery at a nearby PG&E plant.

The chemical has been proven to cause a number of life threatening illnesses, including cancer.

According to Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the chemicals have continued to spread and traces of chromium 6 have been recently detected in a previously untainted aquifer.

"The remediation itself has been very effective, but an underground aquifer is something that is just difficult to centralize and keep in one area," said Greg Pruett, a senior vice president for PG&E.

The utility maintains that the drinking water meets safety standards set by California, but acknowledges that it needs to give residents a sense of confidence that it takes their concerns seriously.

To that end, PG&E is giving some residents free bottles of water.

In addition, residents who live over or next to the chemical plume will be able to participate in PG&E's home purchase program. Pruett hopes residents view it as a good faith offer.

"Our attitude is lets work with you. Lets purchase your property -- and let's help you relocate," he said