The Real Environmental Record of PG&E: Manufactured Studies to Cover-up Environmental Crimes

For those who have seen the movie “Erin Brockovich” you know the story—residents of a small rural town in the Mojave Desert, Hinkley, California, alleged that PG&E contaminated drinking water with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium—chromium-6 and that this exposure led to widespread illness and disease. They used the chromium-infused water as a coolant at some of its natural gas compressor stations but the discharged water tainted local groundwater supplies. Earlier this year the company agreed to pay $315 million to settle the dispute, nearly a decade after agreeing to pay around $160 million.

Typical of settlements, the company refused to admit wrong doing however, PG&E spokesman Jon Tremayne issued a statement Friday saying, “Clearly this situation should never have happened, and we are sorry it did.” (USA Today, 2-16-06).

Given that those practices go back to the 1950s and 1960s, it’s not clear that we should use this case to taint PG&E. More stunning however, is their recent attempts to manufacture a study that demonstrated no link between chromium-6 and cancer.

From the USA Today article:

In December, the Environmental Working Group published a detailed account of PG&E’s alleged attempts to corrupt a previous medical study on chromium-6’s carcinogenic effects.

Drawing on records obtained under California’s Public Records Act, the public interest group chronicled how shortly after the first Brockovich case resulted in the huge plaintiffs’ award, a PG&E-paid; environmental consultant persuaded a respected Chinese scientist to participate in an update of his 1987 study that found chromium-contaminated water in rural China was linked to an increase in villagers’ cancer.

The new study found no such link between chromium-6 and cancer. In its investigation, the Environmental Working Group alleged that the revised study, published in the influential Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, was written by PG&E consultants rather than by the now-deceased JianDong Zhang, whose revised paper misspelled his name three times.

The public interest group obtained records from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment that supported its doubts about the revised study, including the sponsors’ alleged failure to disclose who actually wrote the manuscript and who paid for it, in addition to their allegedly incorrect use of several epidemiological terms, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Here’s the full report from the Environmental Working Group which documents how PG&E conspired to reverse findings of a cancer study.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that the San Francisco-based consultants, ChemRisk, “conceived, drafted, edited and submitted to medical journals” a “clarification” of the Chinese study, according to documents filed in another chromium lawsuit against PG&E. They did so despite a letter of objection from the Chinese scientist who led the original study, calling their reversal of his findings an “inappropriate inference.”

Davis residents who listen to the rhetoric of PG&E may want to read through that report. It is very illustrative—first, PG&E is running on its green record and while the actual Hinkley case did occur decades ago, the attempts by PG&E to manufacture a study to exonerate their past behavior is utterly indefensible and is a matter of recent record and behavior. Of course these facts have not been brought up in the current campaign, but I think Davis residents need to know about it.

The issue here is about responsibility and this is how PG&E reacts when they have made a mistake, instead of making things whole and doing the right thing, they try to lie and connive their way out of responsibility.

—Doug Paul Davis reporting


  • David Greenwald

    Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.



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