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Brooke Self
Julie Heggenberger and her two children stand in front of her home in Hinkley. Heggenberger is one of many residents in the town struggling with an underwater mortgage.

Hinkley: A whole town underwater

STAFF WRITER

HINKLEY • Underwater home mortgages plague the High Desert at an approximate rate of 60 percent, according to real estate website Zillow.com. But in Hinkley, residents say the entire town is dealing with mortgages above their current assessed values.

Resident Julie Heggenberger spent her entire life in Hinkley. Her dad was the town’s first fire chief, built the only fire station in the area and her family was part of the original hexavalent chromium water contamination settlement with Pacific Gas & Electric in 1996.

Hinkley is her home, Heggenberger said, and she never envisioned leaving — until recently, when her latest extended hospital visit related to Crohn’s disease left her at her sickest point.

“Hinkley is my home, but I’ve got to get away,” she said. “I can’t continue to think that it could be making me and my kids sick.”

Heggenberger works as the town’s Fire Captain, has two children and is deeply involved in the community through the 4H Youth Development program but is currently on medical leave due to her continuing health problems.

Now that she’s ready to leave Hinkley behind, Heggenberger is worried because she said it’s impossible to sell her home.

“I’ve had my house listed for sale for six months and I’ve not had one single person make an offer on it,” she said. “No houses are selling except for those asking $12,000 to $19,000 and some people are buying those to get money from PG&E.”

Heggenberger bought her new 3,000-square-foot home on Valley Wells Road in June 2009. That was approximately a year and a half before PG&E’s contamination plume line — stemming from the company use of chromium 6 to prevent rust at its Hinkley natural gas compressor station during the 1950s and ’60s — was extended to include an area of two miles long and nearly a mile wide.

The Heggenberger’s new home is not in the plume line or the mile radius around it that’s still being considered for a buyout by PG&E or whole house water conversion system. Heggenberger said she has received no response from PG&E from several requests to test her wells or compensation for her $175,000 mortgage she said she’ll eventually choose to foreclose on.

“I’ve tried to refinance, restructure... I’ve never made it to an appraisal stage. They see the zip code and nothing,” Heggenberger said.

Heggenberger is not alone. Jackie Depue is a homeowner in Hinkley within the Hexavalent chromium plume line who said although she’s been offered a buyout from PG&E, the compensation would be $20,000 less than what her mortgage loan is worth.

“We can’t take it,” she said. “It doesn’t pay off our loan. We don’t have a choice. This was to be our retirement home.”

Depue said her house has one of the highest levels of chromium 6 in her neighborhood. Two weeks ago her well tested at 6.7 parts per billion — more than double the maximum background level of 3.1 ppb set by the Lahontan Water Board, the agency monitoring the cleanup.

Because she and her husband don’t want to walk away and foreclose on the home, Depue said they will take the whole-house water conversion system.

Jeff Smith, spokesman for PG&E said that the company is sympathetic to the citizens’ concerns in Hinkley and explained that buyout home appraisals are being done based on properties in neighboring communities that have had no impact from any past contamination. He also explained that Total Chromium water standards in the state of California are well above the 3.1 ppb standard being held in Hinkley in the groundwater cleanup.

“There had to be a determination of what’s reasonable and the determination was within a mile is reasonable,” Smith said, speaking of the plume line and those in Hinkley included in compensation options.

Currently the state of California regulates chromium-6 under total chromium at a maximum contaminant level of 50 ppb, a number that is stricter than the 100 ppb standard the federal government holds.

Jackie Nelson has lived on India Wells Road in Hinkley for the past 10 years. Her home is not within the plume area but she believes the value of her home has taken the fate of her father’s, who is her next-door neighbor. His home value went from $141,000 three years ago to $28,000, according to an appraisal two weeks ago.

“I can’t sell my property,” she said. “Ultimately I would love to have had Hinkley be my home for the rest of my life. Now I’m unsure of my future.”


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