Widespread contamination

Alfonso Magdaleno would love to reopen Celestino’s Pizza and Pasta in Paradise, which sustained damage but did not burn in the Camp Fire. A lack of potable water is holding him back.

“We do want to open up, but we want to make sure it’s done safely and properly,” he said by phone. “The town has already been through enough. We want to make sure we are in no way putting anyone in the public at more risk than they’ve already been.”

Magdaleno has been keeping a close eye on water updates from the Paradise Irrigation District (PID). One thing that worries him is that the warnings keep changing—first, there was a boil-only advisory, then benzene contamination was found so people were told not to drink the water at all. On Monday (Feb. 25), a new set of guidelines was released warning homeowners not to rely on filtration systems, that continued testing is necessary.

So, what are homeowners and business owners—like Magdaleno—to do? The PID is testing its system, which ends at the meter. But individuals are responsible for everything else—from the meter to the tap—and they’ve been given inconsistent and incomplete instructions on how to do so. Therein lies a huge problem, says Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering from Purdue University, who traveled to Paradise as part of a team in January at the request of PID.

“What we know is there is no evidence that anyone knows how to test [the water systems inside] buildings—anywhere,” Whelton told the CN&R by phone. “Buildings are mini distribution systems, and homes have a lot of plastics in them. That is where the chemicals will permeate into and diffuse out of. Even if they install a home treatment device, the house plumbing may be contaminated.”

The PID’s latest guidelines were released online after its board meeting last week, during which Whelton’s team, which includes engineers from Purdue and Manhattan College, presented its findings after studying the situation for the past month. They have extensive experience with widespread water contamination issues, like chemical spills, though none that mirrors what Paradise is dealing with. One thing that worries Whelton most is a lack of information being given to residents.

“People are just being left to fend for themselves,” he said.

While Whelton and his team are no longer contracted with PID, he said they are still very much invested in helping. They field phone calls from PID personnel and have offered advice via social media.

“People need help in their homes, where they live. We are trying to help them by gathering information from them,” he said. That information includes how people are testing, who is doing the testing, what they’re testing for and how often—plus the results of those tests.

Adequate testing is complex.

“You can take one water sample at the kitchen faucet, but there’s no evidence that that will predict contamination in your hot water heater—it’s a completely different system,” he said. Because of that, people should be testing at multiple sites within their homes.

“It’s a public health issue and it’s a very serious one—and it is not being addressed,” Whelton said, adding that he has reached out to the state as well as the Butte County Public Health Department with information and offerings of help. “They need to act now.”

The county Public Health Department maintains that it is not responsible for testing individual homes for safe water. There are some guidelines outlined on buttecountyrecovers.org.

“It’s not something that Public Health regulates, though that’s not to say it’s not a public health concern,” said Lisa Almaguer, department spokeswoman. “We can’t say if each home is safe. We’ve told people who have returned that, ‘You’re in a fire-impacted area and you need to take the necessary steps to properly ensure your home is safe to live in.’”

PID has a lot of work ahead to ensure its water system is healthy. On the advice of Whelton and his team, the utility expanded its initial testing from benzene only to a variety of other chemicals. The results of testing 173 water samples were released at last week’s board meeting and revealed widespread contamination.

Benzene, a known carcinogen, was found in 32 percent of those samples, with an average level of 27 parts per billion (the California drinking water standard is 1 ppb). In the 35 samples that tested for additional contaminants, over a dozen additional “volatile organic chemicals” were found.

“The information we have isn’t great, because we’re not seeing patterns. Right now we’re developing a plan to do a massive amount of sampling—at the end we should have results from 30,000-50,000 samples,” said Kevin Phillips, PID manager.

The process, which will start from the top down—as PID is a gravity-based system—likely will take two to three years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Phillips said. Some people will get clean water faster than others, and PID is working with the state and county to get temporary water systems for people living in the area in nonburned homes.

“We feel like, due to the fact that it’s a health and safety concern, we need to do a robust amount of testing to give assurances to customer that there are no more contaminants in the system,” Phillips said.