Sometimes real life stories merge with dramatic improbability. This is how I feel now, looking at the Google Maps image of some scrubby desert land in Hinkley, CA. I own 1/48 of a 20 acre parcel near the new, extended contamination zone from an industrial disaster that resulted a settlement in 1996 for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in US history. Alas, the hexavalent chromium that seeped into the groundwater from a PG&E compression station, has spread further despite remediation efforts over the past decade, and the town is depopulating even further. The land, perhaps worth $10,000 in total, might only have any value if PG&E buys it out in a further settlement, but it appears to be just beyond the official contamination buy-out zone. So, assuming the distant possibility that anyone would actually buy this near-contaminated land and anyone could unravel the complexity of multiple heirs owning the land parcel, my share might be worth $200.00.
I grew up knowing my mother had inherited some California desert land after a long-lost and very distant relative died without a will. She received some cash, as well, and other parcels of land were sold and distributed to the estate. But the bit of Mojave Desert land remained untouched, apparently with the modest municipal taxes paid by other relatives.
The matter moved from vague recollection to reality when, in visiting my mother’s home a day after she died, as we prepared for her funeral in Vancouver, B.C., I discovered old correspondence relating to the estate and land. My younger brother started researching the issue, speaking with a local Realtor and the PG&E office there, and discovered its location. We had thought it was in Barstow, the nearest substantial city, but, no, the land is much closer to Ground Zero.
Hollywood turned the story about the land contamination and litigationinto a 2000 movie, Erin Brockovich, describing the real-life California legal assistant who uncovered the PG&E contamination cover-up and rallied local people to take on the corporation. She later wrote (or had ghost written) a motivational book and a couple of novels.
I knew none of this stuff until learning about the land’s location. My younger brother suggested he would like to go to California to check the land out. I then went to Google maps and discovered an image with Street View. A few minutes later, I visited YouTube, found the movie, and rented it for $4.00. This is obviously a less expensive way to dig into the story than heading across the continent to see some tumbleweeds and industrial contamination. It is quite a story of corporate malfeasance, sloppy construction and maintenance, and human hardship and courage.
The Hinkley land will probably stay in our family indefinitely. The process of sorting out the multiple generations of owners, and reaching an agreement with everyone should someone wish to buy it, seems insurmountable. Yet the cost of keeping it is insignificant — taxes (and assessed value) are almost nothing. My mother’s death, some sleuthing and Google have brought the story close to home, however.
There are no magic answers here. The actions or carelessness of individuals and businesses decades ago live on. Environmental issues merge with legal challenges and property values that go below zero. We think, then, about what might have been possible, if only . . .