Some residents of Paradise, California, who fled the city when wildfires razed it in November are returning to their homes despite the presence of cancer-causing benzene and other toxins in the water supply.
The Camp Fire, which was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, killed 85 people and destroyed all but 10% of the town’s buildings. Before the fire, about 26,000 people called Paradise their home. Now, just a few hundred occupy the ruined city.
Public officials are still trying to get a handle on the cause and scope of the town’s contaminated water problem. Once they understand what is causing dangerous levels of benzene in the water, they can devise a plan and start the rebuilding efforts.
So far, authorities suspect the wildfire may have contaminated about 173 miles of pipeline, which could take years to repair. Officials estimate the cost to be a prohibitive $300 million.
But displaced residents are returning to Paradise despite the lack of potable water, and any water that does run through the town’s taps could trigger serious health problems if consumed.
Some people are returning to Paradise willingly while many others are being driven back because of financial need. A recent NPR story about the benzene contamination in Paradise highlights one resident who, like others, returned to town because her insurance company said the “additional living expenses” that helped them to get by in another town had run out.
Kayla Awalt told NPR that her family planned to return to Paradise eventually, but their insurer left them no choice but to return in January. Her home was one of the few that remained while the structures around it were reduced to charred rubble. As soon as the home was cleaned and remediated, her insurer told her family they had to return home.
To live there, they had to buy a large water tank for $6,500 and spend $250 every few weeks to have it filled.
Another resident whose home also survived the Camp Fire told NPR that she had her water tested three months ago and it was deemed safe. But that could easily change as infrastructure is repaired and water rerouted. She’s supposed to have the water tested regularly but it costs $100 each time so she is taking the risk, drinking bottled water but using tap water for almost everything else.
Andrew Whelton, an Associate Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University, said it’s alarming how residents of Paradise are being left to fend for themselves in such dangerous conditions, especially because Paradise was an affordable haven for retirees and lower-income families.
“That’s not protecting public health,” Dr. Whelton, an expert on restoring water infrastructure after disasters, told NPR. “That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing with a population that has gone under trauma like this; we’re supposed to help them.”
Residents of other wildfire-damaged towns and cities in California face similar problems.
In October 2017 much of Santa Rosa, California, was left in ruins after deadly wildfires swept through Central California. In the Fountainhead neighborhood in northern Santa Rosa, benzene contamination from burnt infrastructure continues to be a problem for residents.
The problem is likely caused by melted plastic stuck in the water lines. As water passes through the affected pipes, benzene, a toxic hydrocarbon commonly found in fossil fuels and plastics, leeches into the water.
Benzene is a colorless liquid or gas with a sweet aroma, so there’s a chance anyone unknowingly drinking the contaminated water may not recognize the potential danger. Benzene is a known carcinogen that has been linked to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), lymphomas, and aplastic anemia. Lesser exposures can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, headaches, convulsions, nausea, vomiting, and confusion.
Other toxic volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, besides benzene are also turning up in Paradise, Santa Rosa, and other communities recovering from devastating wildfires.
Authorities in Paradise say there are 10,500 service lines in the Paradise Irrigation District’s water system. Workers are prioritizing testing in areas where some homes remain standing. Any contaminated lines are shut down and isolated until they can be replaced. So far about 40 percent of the samples collected have tested positive for benzene.
“It is jaw-dropping,” said Dan Newton of California’s Water Resources Control Board, according to the Associated Press. “This is such a huge scale. None of us were prepared for this.”
Many of the cash-strapped communities struggling to rebuild from the wildfires are seeking damages from Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility whose power lines may have sparked the devastating blazes. The town of Paradise and several families are among those suing PG&E.
Officials estimate the Camp Fire caused between $10 billion and $12 billion in damages.