Water Uncertainty Frustrates Victims Of California's Worst Wildfire

Aug 2, 2019
Originally published on August 2, 2019 6:54 pm

Tammy Waller thought she was one of the lucky ones after her home in Magalia survived California's most destructive wildfire ever, but her community remains a ghostly skeleton of its former self.

Hazmat crews are still clearing properties, and giant dump trucks haul away toxic debris. Signs on the water fountains in the town hall say, "Don't drink."

Waller remembers the day she came back home after the Camp Fire.

"When I first walked in, I went to my kitchen sink and turned on the water, and it was just literally black," Waller says.

After the fire, scientists detected dangerous levels of cancer-causing benzenes from burned plastics in some water lines. Recent tests show the problem has not gone away. Chronic exposure to benzenes can heighten the risk of blood cancers such as leukemia.

Today, Waller's taps are running clear, and she has been told the water is safe to drink. But less than a half-mile away, in a neighborhood destroyed by fire, the water isn't considered safe. And the pipes there are part of the same system that brings water to Waller's neighborhood.

"It's not a risk I want to take to drink it," Waller says.

Tammy Waller, a real estate agent in Magalia, Calif., says her livelihood is directly affected by the water crisis following the Camp Fire.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

Fire survivors like Waller are frustrated by the mixed signals from state and local officials. It's not always clear which water is safe, who's at risk and who isn't.

The publicly owned utility, the Paradise Irrigation District, is advising its customers to use bottled water for almost everything: drinking, cooking and brushing teeth.

But the smaller, private Del Oro Water Company says its water, going to standing homes like Waller's, is safe to drink.

Purdue University engineer Andrew Whelton, an expert on rebuilding water infrastructure after disasters, consulted with the Paradise Irrigation District in the immediate months following the Camp Fire. He says there hasn't been enough stringent testing across the burn zone to ensure people aren't being exposed to danger.

"Nobody should encounter these types of decisions following a disaster, because it's not their fault that this happened," Whelton says

The state of California also didn't issue its water safety guidelines to homeowners until June. Whelton and other academics have argued that those guidelines are inadequate, saying that at times they even appear to rely on expertise from a water industry trade magazine, not scientific research.

"In absence of any guidance, people are going to have to figure out how to protect themselves. They're going to have to test their own plumbing," Whelton says. "They're going to have to find people who know what they're doing because the state clearly does not."

At the California State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento, state officials defend their efforts in the recovery so far. Board toxicologist Bruce Macler told NPR he's pretty confident that after more recent stringent testing, the water being delivered to homes where people are living is safe and that the risk of contamination in plumbing above the legal standard is minimal.

"While we know that there was contamination there and we have some very high levels, worrisome levels, we also know nobody's drinking that water and they never will," Macler says.

The fact that it's a big disaster is no excuse anymore. - Andrew Whelton, engineer and expert on rebuilding water infrastructure after disasters

It's not clear how the state can be sure of that.

The reassurances of regulators are of little solace to fire survivors who say that government agencies are taking a cavalier attitude toward public health. But Macler says state drinking water regulators can do only so much in Paradise: They have the authority to regulate water only up to the point where water enters private homes.

"The Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal level and the state equivalent of it, stops at the meter. Congress did not ask us to go into people's homes," Macler says.

The privately run Del Oro Water Company will test water inside homes that survived the fire at a customer's request, for a $70 charge.

Jim Roberts, assistant superintendent at Del Oro Water Company, has lived and worked in Magalia for 40 years. He taps a water main to take a sample on a burned property.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

In Magalia, Del Oro's assistant superintendent, Jim Roberts, takes a sample from a worried customer's kitchen sink. He says the bottle will get shipped to a lab, but in the meantime, everything should be fine.

Roberts says the water going to inhabited homes like this one is safe because Del Oro has been doing rigorous flushing of its system since the fire. Like so many others, Roberts lost his home in Magalia in the Camp Fire. He and his wife recently bought a new place about a half-mile away from their burned property. The water tested OK, and they're drinking it.

"I've gone to several houses where people will say they're concerned," Roberts says. "Especially being a resident here myself, I wouldn't be consuming the water if I didn't feel it was safe."

But Roberts says a wildfire taking out a whole city's infrastructure — in total, the Camp Fire burned nearly 19,000 structures and displaced some 50,000 people — is new territory. Once a month, the company is flushing its systems on uninhabited, burned lots as a precaution.

"And as long as we feel there's any risk of any services containing any contamination, we're going to continue to flush," Roberts says. "So we don't know how long that's going to be. It could be years."

For fire survivors such as Waller, patience is wearing thin. She recently had her water tested, and the results came back this week showing all clear. She plans to do more tests, though, and will continue drinking bottled water for now.

"This is all new, and for that I can give, definitely, some leeway," Waller says. "My thing is, it's OK to say you don't know."

Whelton at Purdue is more blunt. He has long advised the U.S. military on rebuilding water infrastructure.

"The fact that it's a big disaster is no excuse anymore. Because what you do in disasters is you force augment," Whelton says. "You go get supersmart, trained individuals to come in and take responsibility."

Until someone takes responsibility and ownership of big decisions — a leader with authority over all agencies — disaster experts warn that the recovery in the Paradise area will continue to lag.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In and around the rural northern California town of Paradise, people are asking is it safe to live here. Almost nine months after the deadly Camp Fire, the area is still a disaster recovery zone. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the handful of people who are rebuilding homes and lives there say they're getting contradictory messages about whether the water is even safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Turn right, then your destination will be on the left.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Tammy Waller thought she was one of the lucky ones. Her home in Magalia survived California's most destructive wildfire. But her community remains a ghostly skeleton of its former self.

TAMMY WALLER: Now some cleared lots, not cleared lots. And what is that? Burned cars.

SIEGLER: Hazmat crews are still clearing properties. Giant dump trucks continue to haul away toxic debris. And then there's the water. Signs on water fountains at town hall say don't drink. Waller remembers the day she came home.

WALLER: When I first walked in, I went to my kitchen sink and turned on the water. And it was just literally black.

SIEGLER: After the Camp Fire, in some water lines, scientists detected dangerous levels of cancer causing benzenes from burnt plastics. Waller's taps are now running clear. And she's been told it's safe to drink. But less than a half mile away in a neighborhood destroyed by fire, the water isn't considered safe. In this system, the pipes are all connected.

WALLER: It's not a risk I want to take to drink it.

SIEGLER: Fire survivors like Waller are frustrated by the mixed signals from state and local officials. It's not always clear what water is safe, who is at risk and who isn't. Now a big reason for the confusion is that the publicly owned utility, the Paradise Irrigation District, is advising its customers to use bottled water for almost everything - drinking, cooking, brushing your teeth. But the smaller, private Del Oro Water Company says its water going to standing homes like Waller's is safe to drink.

WALLER: The flip-flopping is what puts a lot of uncertainty and I think causes the public more stress. It causes me more stress knowing that one day it's fine, the next, you know, couple of weeks later, oh, oops, it's not.

ANDREW WHELTON: Nobody should encounter these types of decisions following a disaster because it's not their fault that this happened.

SIEGLER: Purdue University's Andrew Whelton is an expert on rebuilding water infrastructure after disasters. He consulted in Paradise after the Camp Fire. He says there hasn't been nearly enough stringent testing to ensure people aren't being exposed to danger. And the state didn't even issue its water safety guidance to homeowners until June.

WHELTON: In absence of any guidance, people are going to have to figure out how to protect themselves. They're going to have to test their own plumbing. They're going to have to find people that know what they're doing because the state clearly does not.

SIEGLER: But the state says Whelton and other academics are being alarmist. At the California Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento, I asked toxicologist Bruce Macler whether he could say with certainty that the water in the Paradise area is safe.

BRUCE MACLER: While we know that there was contamination there, and we have some very high levels, worrisome levels, we also know nobody's drinking that water, and they never will.

SIEGLER: But how can the state know that for sure? Macler told me he's pretty confident that after more recent testing, the water being delivered to homes with people in them is safe. Well, this is of little solace to fire survivors we talked to, who complained that government agencies are taking a cavalier attitude toward public health. But Macler says the state can only regulate water up to the moment it enters a property.

MACLER: The Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal level and the state equivalent of it, stops at the meter. Congress did not ask us to go into people's homes.

SIEGLER: For now, the Del Oro Water Company will test the water in your home if it survived the fire for a $70 charge.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER DRIPPING FROM FAUCET)

SIEGLER: In Magalia, Del Oro's assistant superintendent Jim Roberts takes a sample from a worried customer's kitchen sink.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER DRIPPING FROM FAUCET)

JIM ROBERTS: ...About a cup or two go through.

SIEGLER: He tells them the bottle will get shipped to a lab. But in the meantime, everything should be fine.

ROBERTS: Once this is completed, then you can go about filling up the coffee pot and...

SIEGLER: Roberts says the water going to inhabited homes like this is safe because Del Oro did rigorous flushing of its system after the fire. And this continues today. When his own home burned, he moved back to a new place nearby. The water tested safe, and he's drinking it.

ROBERTS: And as long as, you know, we feel there's any risk of any sources containing any contamination, we're going to continue to flush. So we don't know how long that's going to be. It could be years.

SIEGLER: Roberts says a wildfire taking out a whole city's infrastructure is new territory. You hear that a lot here. But for fire survivors such as Tammy Waller, patience is wearing thin.

WALLER: This is all new. And for that, I can give definitely some leeway on that. My thing is, it's OK to say you don't know.

SIEGLER: Andrew Whelton at Purdue is more blunt. He built his career advising the U.S. military on rebuilding water infrastructure.

WHELTON: The fact that it's a big disaster is no excuse anymore because what you do in disasters is you force augment. You go get super smart, trained individuals to come in to take responsibility.

SIEGLER: Until someone actually takes responsibility and ownership of big decisions and leads, Whelton warns the recovery here will continue to lag.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Paradise, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.