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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

In a few minutes, a video of a schoolgirl fight posted on YouTube as a warning - bullies beware.

CHADWICK: First, another kind of fight, the one waged by Erin Brockovich. You remember her story. It became a Julia Roberts movie about a single mom who took on a multibillion dollar company. The company was Pacific Gas and Electric, and the town Hinkley, California.

COHEN: Chemical contamination in the local water supply was linked to a plant operated by PG&E. The movie, "Erin Brockovich," had a Hollywood ending, but in the real Hinkley life does go on.

From member station KPCC, Steven Cuevas reports.

STEVEN CUEVAS: Julia Roberts's portrayal of the brassy legal clerk who uncovered the contamination and the cover-up won her an Oscar in 2001.

(Soundbite of movie, "Erin Brockovich")

Ms. JULIA ROBERTS (Actress): (As Erin Brockovich) Internal PG&E documents, all about the contamination. The one that I like best says, yes, the water is poisonous, but it would be better for all involved if this matter was not discussed with the neighbors. It's to the Hinkley station from PG&E headquarters.

CUEVAS: PG&E was forced to pay $333 million to dozens of Hinkley residents. The company is still struggling to contain the chromium six contamination. It recently bought more than a dozen properties to make way for the ongoing clean-up efforts.

But now residents say they have a new worry - an 80 acre open-air composting plant that aims to open up shop in a wind-blasted swathe of desert just outside of town.

Mr. NORMAN DIAZ: People here (unintelligible) say, hey, you know, haven't we had enough problems?

CUEVAS: Hinkley resident Norman Diaz is leading the charge to block the project. He's organized town meetings, roadside protests and even enlisted Erin Brockovich to lend her support to the town's new cause.

Mr. DIAZ: Why would you come and do this to us now? We already have - our immune systems are compromised. Our water is compromised. Why would you think that this is a good place to site this? Of all the places to pick in this big giant desert, why pick Hinkley?

CUEVAS: People are concerned about what might be in the compost. A waste management company called Nursery Products wants to take truckloads of municipal waste water sludge or biosolids to the site. The raw sludge can carry dioxins, heavy metals and whatever else someone might flush down a toilet. And yes, that means human excrement. The sludge will be mixed with lawn clippings and other green waste. The sludge is heat-treated to remove any harmful pathogens.

The project already passed a lengthy environmental impact review. The owner of Nursery Products, Jeff Meburg, says his product is not only safe, it's good for you.

Mr. JEFF MEBURG (Owner, Nursery Products): You could actually use it right in your backyard. You can use it in your potted plants. You could eat it. Just to complete the cycle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEBURG: I mean, that's how safe is it.

CUEVAS: Little stands between the adobe-colored bungalows and mobile homes of Hinkley and the wide open patch of desert that would be home to the biosolids plant. It's eight miles from town - too close for residents like Dave Cheney.

Mr. DAVE CHENEY: My main concern is, is this stuff getting in the air or getting in swamp coolers, reactivating? It's not just human waste; it's everything that goes in a sewer. Can anybody on any one day ever tell me what's in the sewer?

Professor DAVID CROHN (University of California Riverside): There have been no scientifically demonstrated negative effects that are attributed to these compost operations.

CUEVAS: David Crohn is a waste management expert at the University of California Riverside. He says there are hundreds of such facilities across the country turning raw waste water sludge into compost.

Prof. CROHN: Does that mean there are never any effects? Well, we just haven't been able to observe them. But certainly composting biosolids has received a huge amount of scientific attention by people all over the country and all over the world. And I think it's proven itself again and again and again and again.

CUEVAS: That's not to say there are no problems associated with composting biosolid sludge, but David Crohn says they tend to benign nuisances like odor, dust and flies - things chucked up to poor management practices.

Hinkley residents opposed to the Nursery Products plant seized on the fact that the company was run out of another town over just those issues. Nursery Products owner Jeff Meburg admits there were problems, but he insists they won't happen in Hinkley. He says his company is not PG&E.

Mr. MEBURG: I absolutely feel compassion for those people because, yeah, they're going to lump the two projects together. And we've gone through facts, point by point by point, and they've said we're not interested in working with you. We're interested in just not having you open.

CUEVAS: But with the environmental impact review green-lighting the project, the plant probably will open. Opponents hope a lawsuit challenging the EIR will stall the project, but even they admit it's a long shot.

For NPR, I'm Steven Cuevas in Hinkley, California.

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