In San Bernardino County, California, authorities found a live pipe bomb along a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline last month, near the site of one of the state’s most highly publicized environmental disasters.

The county sheriff’s bomb unit disabled the bomb, which was discovered Dec. 10 near a PG&E facility in the Mojave Desert town of Hinkley, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Jodi Miller. Investigators haven’t identified any suspects, she said.

In the 1950s and ’60s, PG&E pipeline workers dumped cleaning chemicals containing a cancer-causing substance, chromium-6, at Hinkley, contaminating the well water on which the town relies. Hinkley’s long legal fight to force PG&E to clean up the mess was the subject of the 2000 Julia Roberts film, “Erin Brockovich.”

PG&E holds regular meetings with a committee of Hinkley residents as part of its ongoing cleanup efforts, which have cost the utility more than $800 million so far. But it’s never mentioned the bomb, committee members said.

Nevertheless, the incident appeared to rattle the utility: On Dec. 11, PG&E executive Jesus Soto wrote an email to employees, reporting the discovery of the “suspicious device” and saying PG&E was taking the incident extremely seriously.

“Corporate security is looking at other facilities with similar setups to Hinkley to assure ongoing safe operation,” he wrote.

Larry Griep, a member of the citizens committee that meets with PG&E, said rage at the giant utility is never far from the surface in Hinkley, where population has dropped by more than half, to about 1,700, since the water contamination was discovered two decades ago.

He said anger was stirred recently when PG&E stopped delivering bottled water to residents and ceased buying out homeowners who want to leave town but can’t sell their properties because of the pollution.

“There have been threats against the PG&E people,” Griep said. “The bomb part I don’t agree with, but the threats for what they (have) done wrong, I can understand.”

The pipeline near where the bomb was found links California with gas suppliers in the Southwest. It delivers “one-third of the natural gas required by PG&E’s customers,” according to a company document.

An explosion on the pipeline “would probably start a hell of a fire,” Griep said, “but they’ve got shutoff valves, so it probably wouldn’t have hurt any people.” He said he was troubled that PG&E never reported the incident.

PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith referred questions about the incident to law enforcement. Asked about threats, he said, “Periodically, there have been certain individuals in the community who have made disparaging comments about PG&E,” and the utility reports threats to the sheriff. He wouldn’t comment on whether any threats appeared to be related to the bomb.

Bombs at PG&E facilities are rare. “This is the first one I can remember in 16 years,” said Mindy Spatt of The Utility Reform Network, based in San Francisco, which monitors PG&E.

In a 2013 crime, gunmen with automatic weapons shot up a PG&E electric substation near San Jose. Some experts feared terrorists were trying to take out Silicon Valley’s electric supply. PG&E initially dismissed the incident as vandalism. The FBI investigated, but the crime remains unsolved.

This story was edited Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Lance Williams can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @LanceWCIR.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Lance Williams is a former senior reporter for Reveal, focusing on money and politics. He has twice won journalism’s George Polk Award – for medical reporting while at The Center for Investigative Reporting, and for coverage of the BALCO sports steroid scandal while at the San Francisco Chronicle. With partner Mark Fainaru-Wada, Williams wrote the national bestseller “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports.” In 2006, the reporting duo was held in contempt of court and threatened with 18 months in federal prison for refusing to testify about their confidential sources on the BALCO investigation. The subpoenas were later withdrawn. Williams’ reporting also has been honored with the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Edgar A. Poe Award; the Gerald Loeb Award for financial reporting; and the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment. He graduated from Brown University and UC Berkeley. He also worked at the San Francisco Examiner, the Oakland Tribune and the Daily Review in Hayward, California.