Pacific Gas & Electric: Social Responsibility Gone Bad

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Pacific Gas & Electric:|
Social Responsibility Gone Bad|
By Angela|

When you pour yourself a glass of water out of the sink at home, you trust that all measures have been taken to ensure that the water you drink is safe to consume. There is no real reason to second guess that, right? In this case, that statement is not true. The people who lived in Hinkley, California in the 1990’s are regretting that trust they had in the groundwater in their town. As you may already know, I am referring to the case of Hinkley v. Pacific Gas & Electric. The film, Erin Brockovich, chronicles this true story of PG&E and the residents of Hinkley, describing how the Hinkley residents were deceived by PG&E, and how they were brought to justice. This particular case led to “the biggest settlement on record for a civil class action lawsuit” (Famous Trials, Erin Brockovich).

In this case, the residents of Hinkley, CA alleged contamination of their drinking water with hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6. The center of the case was a facility called the Hinkley Compressor Station, part of a natural gas pipeline that was constructed in 1952. Between 1952 and 1966, PG&E used hexavalent chromium to fight corrosion within the cooling tower at the Hinkley Compressor Station. The wastewater dissolved the hexavalent chromium from the cooling towers and was released into unlined ponds at the plant site. This wastewater permeated into the groundwater, affecting an area near the plant “approximately two miles long and nearly a mile wide” (PG&E Hinkley Chromium Cleanup). I will further discuss some of the ethical issues involved in this case.

The unfortunate part of this is that PG&E knew about the chromium contamination, but chose not to tell the residents of Hinkley about it. PG&E, being “the utility that provides natural gas and electricity to most of the northern two-thirds of California, from Bakersfield almost to the Oregon border” (Pacific Gas & Electric Company), has a social & environmental responsibility to all of the residents they serve, and they did not live up to this responsibility. When Erin Brockovich (with the help of Ed Masry of The Law Offices of Masry & Vititoe) uncovered this irresponsibility, PG&E’s unethical practices came to the surface, against their will. If it wasn’t for Brockovich’s intuitiveness, persistence and high level of moral standards, this case may never have come to light. She felt she had a moral responsibility to the people of Hinkley to see this case through, and fight for all of the people who had become ill, and also lost their lives because of the chromium contamination.

An obvious ethical dilemma of this case is the deception of PG&E, and the affect that the deception had on the members of the Hinkley community. In this case, PG&E deceived the entire town of Hinkley by allowing them to believe that their water source was safe. At one point, PG&E held a seminar inviting 200 Hinkley residents to explain the benefits of using chromium 3 as a rust inhibitor for the machines at their utility plant. Company representatives stated that “it was okay for people to swim in a pool where chrome 3 concentrations were higher than EPA limits, it was fine to swim in the pools because chlorine and other pool chemicals kill any contaminants in the pool (including chromium), and that the water supply was completely safe and there were no toxic problems with their water” (Famous Trials, Erin Brockovich). The deception is clear when the residents of Hinkley later find out that PG&E was not actually using chromium 3 at their plant, but was using chromium 6 instead. As explained previously, hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, is extremely dangerous and harmful to humans. It can cause anything from severe headaches and nosebleeds, chronic illnesses, organ failure, and many types of cancer....
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