Andy Miller has been frustrated with the mixed messaging being given to the public in regard to the safety of water and plumbing post-Camp Fire. What it seems to have come down to, he says, is the State Water Resources Control Board vs. Andrew Whelton, a Purdue University water contamination expert and head of its Center for Plumbing Safety.
“I can’t tell you why that is, or who is right,” said Miller, Butte County’s public health officer. “I welcome every voice, even though those voices are leading to confusion, because I think that’s the only reasonable approach that we’re afforded.”
Miller is the first to acknowledge he’s no water expert. So, in looking out for the public’s health, he has little choice but to listen to those who are. This past week, however, the battle came to a head after the water board’s Department of Drinking Water released testing guidelines for residents with standing homes and businesses concerned about the safety of their plumbing. It’s in stark contrast to the guidelines Whelton has been advocating—and which he released two days later. They were prepared by his Purdue/Manhattan College team, with contributions from experts at Virginia Tech, the University of Iowa and the University of Rhode Island.
“I ask that the [water board] please retract and revise the guidance as I believe there are critical flaws,” Whelton wrote in a letter addressed to California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci and water board Executive Director Eileen Sobeck. “… [T]hat guidance is not adequately protective of public health.”
The biggest difference between the two documents, Miller confirmed, is the approach that they take. While the Purdue guidelines assume contamination exists and recommend caution, the water board assumes no contamination and recommends a screening test to determine if more testing is necessary.
Both entities agreed about that characterization, and both stood their ground when interviewed for this story.
In reading through the two sets of guidelines, there are similarities: Both offer detailed recommendations for flushing a building’s plumbing system, then letting the water sit stagnant before taking a sample. That’s about where the similarities end, however.
The water board, for instance, recommends allowing the water to stagnate for a minimum of eight hours (i.e., overnight), while Purdue maintains that 72 hours is appropriate and necessary for detecting contamination.
“We’re looking at it from a convenience standpoint,” said Bruce Macler, a water toxicologist working for the water board who collaborated on the guidelines. “A 72-hour stagnation period is putting somebody out of their home for three days. Our guidance says if you want to do that, you’re certainly welcome to. But eight hours is perfectly adequate—if it is bad, it’ll be bad at eight [hours] or 72.”
The water board says to take one cold water sample at a representative location—the kitchen sink, for instance—and to test only for benzene, which it says is “an appropriate indicator of the presence or absence of other contaminants that could pose adverse health risks.” Purdue says while benzene is an indicator, other harmful compounds may be present even if benzene is not.
Whelton points to recent test results by the town of Paradise, which followed the Purdue-prescribed guidelines, as has its water purveyor, the Paradise Irrigation District. Those results, which the town provided to the CN&R, show no benzene present but do indicate other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at levels that surpass the state’s maximum standards for human health. Several of them were in hot water samples taken from bathroom sinks. A memo from Assistant Town Manager Marc Mattox regarding the results says that “we have closed the detection locations to employee use,” then details a regimen of flushing, stagnation and retesting before reopening those spots.
“If the town had followed the benzene-only advice given by the state, they never would have known they had unsafe water in some of their town buildings. People could have been exposed to it,” Whelton said. “This is another clear example of how the state’s guidance about buildings, which isn’t based on understanding buildings, clearly did not protect the town of Paradise employees, citizens and visitors from potential harm.”
The water board has chosen to disregard those results, blaming a “mistake in the lab,” Macler told the CN&R, referring to “cross-contamination.”
Whelton’s response: “You can’t ignore data you don’t like. That’s not how science works.”
The water board is in the process of considering Whelton’s letter and his team’s guidelines, spokesman Blair Robertson confirmed. In the meantime, the Purdue team is set to hold a day of workshops and discussions in Paradise next Thursday (June 27).
Early in the day, Whelton and his team will be meeting with the Paradise Rotary Club. Then, later on, from 4-6 p.m., they’ll be holding a plumbing safety workshop at the Paradise Alliance Church, with help from volunteers from Butte College, Chico State and UC Berkeley.
“It’s for people and their families who want to learn a little more—who want to see damaged pipes and meters, or ask questions about how to read a lab report,” Whelton said. “We’ll be teaching individuals about how to make sense of that information, and have demos—show people how to fill up water bottles properly without overfilling them, [etc.].”
At 7 p.m., the team will present results from the community survey conducted in the spring (which also will be live-streamed at m.facebook.com/campfirezoneproject).
While there may be conflicting messages about what level of testing or caution is appropriate, Miller said he appreciates Whelton and his team’s participation and continued persistence.
“Butte County citizens deserve the best water safety advice that they can trust will protect them, their friends and families,” Whelton said. “There’s a positive way forward and many experts on building plumbing have already stepped forward to help. We and others still are willing to help. No one should ever have to worry about the safety of their drinking water or their plumbing.”