The discovery was as surprising as it was ominous.
Weeks after the Camp Fire roared through Northern California’s Butte County last November, devouring entire towns, officials made an alarming find: The Paradise drinking water is now laced with benzene, a volatile compound linked to cancer.
Water officials say they believe the extreme heat of the firestorm created a “toxic cocktail” of gases in burning homes that got sucked into the water pipes when the system depressurized from use by residents and firefighters.
Despite a long history of destructive wildfires sweeping through California, water experts said what happened in Paradise has been detected only once before — during the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa last year. The contamination in Paradise, however, is more widespread than anyone could have predicted, they said.
“It is jaw-dropping,” said Dan Newton of the state Water Resources Control Board. “This is such a huge scale. None of us was prepared for this.”
The water contamination represents yet another unexpected and costly headache for California, a drought-prone state where water is a precious commodity and where seemingly endless natural and human-made disasters are draining resources. So far, the expected cleanup and insurance costs of the Paradise fire exceed $2 billion. Through FEMA, federal taxpayers are expected to pick up the cost of municipal repairs.
Experts who have rushed in to assess the problem say the water district may be able to clean pipes to some homes later this year, but it will take two years and up to $300 million before all hillside residents can safely drink, cook or bathe in the water from their taps.
The health hazard is real, they say. Benzene is both a natural and human-made compound used as a building block for industrial products such as plastic, lubricants, rubber, detergent and pesticide. It also is found in crude oil, gasoline and cigarette smoke.
It has been connected to various physical ailments, according to federal warnings, including skin and eye irritation, and vomiting from short-term exposure. Long-term exposure has been linked to anemia and leukemia.
One noted water systems engineer said solving the benzene-contamination problem is the most scientifically complex task he has ever seen. The contamination is both in the water, moving around, and in the pores of some pipes.
“You have to be a detective to figure out what is going on,” said environmental engineer Andrew Whelton of Purdue University, who deals with water system emergencies. “They have contaminated water moving around. They have very limited data.”
As climate change makes wildfires bigger and hotter, and as more houses are built in fire zones, water contamination could happen again, some say.
Paradise and Santa Rosa may only be warm-up acts.
>> ‘Holy crap, we need help’
For now, the vast majority of Paradise’s former 27,000 residents are gone, forced off the hillside when 90 percent of structures were consumed in the fire. But an estimated 1,500 have moved back in to the few surviving houses.
Water officials have issued them a warning: Do not drink tap water. Do not cook with it. Do not brush your teeth with it or bathe in it. If you shower, use warm water, not hot, and make it quick.
The agency has set up a water distribution center in a local parking lot, giving cases of free bottled water daily to residents.
The task of dealing with the most of contamination falls to a small century-old water company called the Paradise Irrigation District. Run by a board of town residents, it maintains a 172-mile system of water mains and service lines, fed by a reservoir on the hill above the town.
Water district chief Kevin Phillips said he and his board knew immediately that they could not handle the problem on their own. His initial reaction when the first water samples came in was blunt: “Holy crap. We need help.”
The irrigation district has called on other water agencies, state water experts, university scientists, lab chemists and the federal government for help.
“We are very good at delivering clean water, but we are not equipped to handle a situation of this magnitude,” Phillips said.
Phillips himself was the agency’s budget officer just a few months ago. He found himself in charge when the previous director quit and left town after the Camp Fire burned his house.
Thirty of the agency’s 36 employees lost their homes to the fire, Phillips said. Nine have quit.
Despite the water issues, the town of Paradise is pushing hard to rebuild.
Hundreds of workers are on the hillside daily carting fire debris away and preparing lots for new houses. The first handful of residents have secured permits in recent weeks to rebuild their houses.
“We’re open for business, and water will not preclude you from getting a building permit and getting back in your home,” said Michael Renner, whose company 4LEAF, Inc. is helping the city with the permit process. He pointed out the water district plans to set up clean water tanks for new arrivals until the pipes are cleared for use.
Some residents are upset with what they believe is the water district’s slow pace. “If I was your boss, you’d be walking down the road,” one angry resident said at a recent community meeting.
Another lamented, “Nobody in Paradise can sell property today because we don’t have water.”
Marc Mattox, Paradise public works director, who lost his home in the fire, said some people are reluctant to come back, given the water worries. “People can go into this fear mode.” But, he said, “We’re here to support you and get your home rebuilt, and get ready for when (the water district) are ready to have their system recovered.”
Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, one of the biggest rebuild proponents, hopes to be one of the first displaced residents to return. But, she readily acknowledges the end game, “You can’t have a town without water.”
>> Forensics on the hillside
First, district officials say, they have to determine the extent of the contamination.
Each day, crews fan out to about two dozen home sites where they dig up and inspect water meters for damage, check the condition of the service line, and note whether the building is burned or not.
A technician in latex gloves then fills two four-inch vials with water from the line, places them on ice in her truck and drives them at day’s end to a lab in Chico, or hands them to a courier to deliver to more distant labs.
Paradise Irrigation District officials say they have taken some 500 water samples around town, and have found benzene 30 percent of the time. They are testing as well for other volatile compounds.
The average benzene level reading has been 31 parts per billion, Phillips said recently. The highest reading was 923 ppb as of a few weeks ago. That’s far higher than the California maximum allowable level for benzene in drinking water of one part per billion. Federally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowable level is 5 parts per billion.
The testing process has been fraught with uncertainty though. Officials initially thought they should let water sit for 72 hours before testing, allowing benzene to leach out of the pores of the pipe. But some tests have shown higher levels of benzene after 24 hours than after 72.
“The more we tested, the more we had to go back to the drawing board,” Phillips said. “What we assumed to be the case turned out not to be. We are just kind of boggled by that.”
It happened in Santa Rosa
Paradise officials initially called Santa Rosa for help. That city appears to have the first known case of wildfire-caused benzene contamination.
“We were never able to find any (water district) that experienced the same thing,” Santa Rosa interim water director Jennifer Burke said.
Water officials say it is possible, though, that fires have contaminated urban drinking water in the past, but that those instances went undetected due to lack of testing.
Santa Rosa discovered its problem a month after the fire when a resident of one of the homes that did not burn complained of a foul odor from the tap water. The city has spent $8 million to test and replace pipes and hydrants.
Paradise is dealing with a much broader problem, Burke said. “The burn area was roughly 5 percent of our system. They are looking at 90 percent. I can’t imagine.”
Phillips of Paradise said his agency, state officials and consultants feel like they are setting the bar for future scenarios. “We feel like we are basically writing the playbook for how to respond to this situation.”
The federal EPA has joined in to advise. “As this is the second such occurrence of benzene contamination in two years within California, one of many fire-prone states, EPA can share information gathered here with other areas affected by wildfires in the future,” EPA spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan said in an email to The Bee.
>> How did it get in the pipes?
It’s not a given that benzene will show up in a water system after a major wildfire. No benzene was found in tests in Redding after the Carr Fire destroyed whole neighborhoods last summer, state water officials said.
So, how did it get into the pipes under Paradise?
Local and state officials have a theory, based on the fact that benzene can be formed from high-intensity burning.
On the morning of the fire, residents and firefighters turned on hoses and tapped fire hydrants, drawing water heavily from the system, and causing some pipes to empty, likely creating a vacuum. That vacuum may have sucked toxic air in some burning houses into the system.
That may explain why benzene has been found in tests at various spots around the city, rather than from one source.
Melted plastic meters and plastic pipes also may have introduced benzene and other volatile organic compounds into the system, local and state water officials say.
“It’s a whole toxic cocktail of organic contaminants,” said Reese Crenshaw, a state water board engineer.
But those are just theories, Newton of the state water board said. “We don’t have a definite answer.”
Representatives from two plastic pipe industry groups challenged California’s melted plastic thesis when contacted by The Bee.
“We don’t know where this theory comes from. We’d like to see the evidence,” Lance MacNevin of the Plastics Pipe Institute in Texas said. “If they ask for our help, we’d love to assist with this investigation.”
>> Replace the entire system?
Initially, Paradise Irrigation District officials decided the safest bet would be to build an entirely new system.
That would be a $100 million to $200 million project that could take more than a year and require massive digging up of city streets from the top of the hill on through the lower reaches of town, on the same roads now jammed with debris hauling trucks, contractor crews and material haulers.
But the Paradise water agency doesn’t have the money to make those repairs. With 90 percent of its customer and revenue base gone, the agency faces insolvency within six months, the agency said in a posting on its website.
It plans to ask the state for a $22 million bailout to continue operations for three years.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency meanwhile is expected to pay for most of the emergency repairs, but it has rejected the idea of a new system, Phillips said.
FEMA emailed a statement to The Bee saying it is working with the state and the Paradise Irrigation District “to explore options that will result in safe drinking water for Paradise residents. We can’t define what is eligible yet because PID is still determining what they are going to do.”
Phillips said his agency’s plan is to focus first on replacing contaminated pipes that run to and between still-standing homes, not burned properties. That plan should speed the process of bringing clean tap water to the first homes later this year.
The agency will shut off contaminated lines that go to burned home sites. If and when people rebuild on those sites, the agency will test for benzene and replace those lines as needed, he said.
The early estimate for the work ranges broadly, from $50 million to $300 million, Phillips said, depending on how much testing needs to be done, how much contamination is found and how many pipes have to be replaced.
>> A debate over testing
The novelty of the problem has led to disagreements over how far the district should go in testing.
Environmental engineer Whelton of Purdue University, a national expert on chemical contamination in drinking water systems, says this is the most scientifically complex drinking water issue he has seen, involving contamination that may be moving daily around in the system.
Whelton, whose Purdue team is serving in an advisory capacity, is pushing the state to authorize more sophisticated testing, including multiple tests at spots and checks for a broader array of volatile organic compounds. He recently called the governor’s office to push his point.
“The data being used for public health and safety decisions must be credible and reproducible,” he wrote in an email to the state. “If taxpayer dollars (are) not resulting in reproducible data, something is wrong.”
State water board officials have pushed back. In an email to Whelton and other members of the ad hoc Paradise water advisory team, Crenshaw said he fears “creating an ‘analysis paralysis.’ ”
Speaking to The Bee, Crenshaw acknowledged one area where more testing should be done. That’s in the Paradise Pines community, up the hill from Paradise, where the problem was first discovered in the weeks after the fire.
That area is served by the Del Oro Water Company. An initial dozen tests of burned service lines found benzene in five lines, results show. Del Oro flushed those lines and the benzene disappeared, according to a second set of test results. Tests at standing homes showed no benzene.
But Paradise team members and Santa Rosa officials say they believe flushing is only partially effective because benzene infiltrates the pores of some pipes, then leaches back out into the water later. The leaching issue appears to affect all types of pipes, from plastic to metal.
Crenshaw, who is assisting the Del Oro district, said crews have done about 100 tests in Paradise Pines so far, where 4,000 homes burned, and will do more. “We want a bigger sample size,” he said. His prediction for burned home sites: “We are probably going to find more (benzene).”
>> The ‘burn scar people’
Although fire destruction on the hillside was sweeping, an estimated 10 percent of homes survived, and many are now inhabited.
It’s a group one resident calls the “burn scar people.” They are living on bottled water and water tank deliveries.
Retirees Jim and Marty Wilson, whose home burned down, have rented a bungalow in the upper reaches of Paradise. It’s the only house standing on their side of the street. Next door, crews last week were noisily clearing the rubble of a burned house.
The Wilsons have placed 19 water containers in a row on the ground under the roof overhang. It’s their rainwater collection system. Some are plastic buckets. Others are ice chests and still others are plastic storage containers.
Jim Wilson and his wife Marty collect rain water to shower and wash their clothes on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 in Paradise. Benzene, a cancer-causing compound, has been found in the Paradise water system. Jim has hooked up a battery operated shower in their bathroom.
To take a shower, Jim collects three buckets of water from the outside containers, warms the water in a portable kitchen counter-top heater, then pours it into a bucket in the bathtub.
He bought a small hose with a pump that pushes the water to a nozzle. He sprays himself quickly, soaps, then sprays again.
“It’s like we’re camping, just indoors,” he said.
“It’s not for everyone,” his wife said.
A few miles away, 84-year-old Norman Stein says he likes the peace and quiet now. The Elberta peach tree outside his kitchen window has begun to bloom. Birds chirp in the scorched trees overhead.
Stein drives 15 minutes each week to the water distribution center and loads the trunk with bottles and stacks them in his garage. He and his wife disagree on the risk posed by their tap water. She opened the sink tap to show visitors how clear the water is.
“I could feel an oily substance before, but it’s cleared up now,” she said. “This is good water.”
“Only it’s got benzene in it,” her husband retorted. “I won’t even brush my teeth in that stuff.”
Stein is thinking about buying a purifying system. Some of his friends have. But water officials have said that they do not know how well in-home filters protect residents if there is benzene in their taps.
>> The ‘bells are ringing’
Stein and Wilson say they believe officials will succeed in eliminating the toxins from the water system. But the fix planned by water officials leaves out one major component that may prove problematic for years to come.
State and local water officials say their jurisdiction – and their legal responsibility - goes only as far the water meters at the edge of each property. The service lines from the meters into homes and businesses are privately owned. More of those lines are likely to be contaminated because they connect to burned structures.
In a February letter to Butte County and Paradise town officials, state water official Crenshaw warned that “it is practically impossible to pinpoint” which service lines have benzene in them.
He recommended that all property owners with destroyed buildings have their water service line replaced from the meter to the house when they rebuild. They likely will have to pay for that themselves at a cost of several thousand dollars each.
Some residents have taken water samples in for testing. But testers and water officials warn samples may be unreliable unless they’re taken according to protocols used by credentialed testing labs.
Butte County officials say they are participating in meetings with state officials and other experts, convened by the state Office of Emergency Services, to determine the best advice to give residents about dealing with possible service line contamination.
Phillips of the Paradise Irrigation District said he hopes his agency can push forward assertively in the coming months. But he said he knows the agency can only go as far as FEMA funding rules will allow, and mistakes could be costly.
“We don’t want to jump off the cliff and six months later say, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have gone down this path.’ ”
Water and wildfire experts say California not only must take the right steps to assure water safety in Paradise, it also must take the opportunity to learn lessons that could protect drinking water in future wildfires.
One of those is Jackson Webster, a Chico State professor and environmental engineer specializing in the effects of wildfire on water quality. He has been watching closely, and said he is ready to help, if needed.
“This is really just the beginning here,” Webster said. “The fires in Santa Rosa caught people by surprise. Now, it has happened twice. The bells are ringing.”
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The discovery was as surprising as it was ominous.