After Wildfire, Paradise, Calif., Water Is Contaminated But Residents Return Despite public health warnings about benzene contamination in the town's water supply, some Paradise residents say they have no choice but to return.
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Paradise, Calif., Water Is Contaminated But Residents Are Moving Back Anyway

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Paradise, Calif., Water Is Contaminated But Residents Are Moving Back Anyway

Paradise, Calif., Water Is Contaminated But Residents Are Moving Back Anyway

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It could be years before the water in Paradise, Calif., is safe to drink. Last November's Camp Fire may have contaminated 173 miles of pipeline in the town's water supply with cancer-causing benzenes. Some residents who are now moving back into Paradise are buying water tanks or filtration systems. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, public health experts warn that even those may not be safe.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Volunteers are hoisting case after case of bottled water into trucks and pickup beds in a parking lot on the outskirts of Paradise.

Hi. How are you doing today?

KYLA AWALT: Good.

SIEGLER: Her two kids in tow in her minivan, Kyla Awalt is grateful for the free water. Her home was one of the few actually spared by the Camp Fire.

AWALT: Everything around us burned, yeah.

SIEGLER: Ninety percent of this area's housing stock, nearly 14,000 homes, burned. Five months later, Paradise is still a disaster zone with, only 6 percent of the debris even hauled away - burned-out skeletons of cars, piles of toxic rubble, blackened old growth pines. The water is just the latest crisis calling into question whether the town was ready to reopen. But Kyla Awalt had no other choice but to move back here to her home off of Bille Road, surrounded by the rubble of what used to be her neighborhood.

AWALT: As soon as the house was cleaned, our insurance company basically told us that we had to come home.

SIEGLER: Their insurance covering living expenses ran out in January. But there is still no potable water. They considered selling.

AWALT: But then how do you sell a house without water? You can't. That's part of the, you know, inspection process.

SIEGLER: So they bought a huge water tank out of pocket for $6,500. Every few weeks, they pay another $250 to fill it up. And her family rations water.

AWALT: It's kind of up to the homeowner. It's on them to figure it out.

ANDREW WHELTON: Much of the population has been left to fend for themselves.

SIEGLER: Andrew Whelton is a civil engineer and expert in restoring water infrastructure after disasters.

WHELTON: That's not protecting public health. 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.

SIEGLER: Whelton teaches at Purdue University. Lately, he's been advising the town's primary water supplier, the Paradise Irrigation District. They're trying to pinpoint the source of the contamination, whether it's from burned plastic pipes and meters or from the toxic waste from burned structures that was flushed back into the town's water pipes or both.

WHELTON: The scale of the recovery effort and the testing that's needed in my experience here will be unprecedented.

SIEGLER: Unprecedented but a warning to other cities in high-risk wildfire zones. So far, only about 2 percent of Paradise's water system has been tested. At the Paradise Irrigation District, manager Kevin Phillips looks overwhelmed.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: That's one of the biggest things that we've realized - is there is no playbook for this incident. There is no playbook for a wildfire that destroys a town, and you have a depressurization of the system that creates contamination.

SIEGLER: There are 10,500 service lines in this system, which was already known to be aging and poorly designed. At least a third of the tests they've done so far showed dangerous levels of benzenes. So they're not taking any chances. The plan is to prioritize testing in neighborhoods where homes are still standing and shut down and isolate the contaminated places. It's going to take years.

PHILLIPS: We feel like we're under the microscope of the nation right now, that we are going to be the reason why the town doesn't rebuild - is because if there's no water, there's no town.

SIEGLER: But Phillips says they won't do anything hastily that would jeopardize public health. As more people try to move back, the utility hopes to buy and deliver tanks with potable water. But no one knows yet who's going to pay for that. Purdue engineer Andrew Whelton worries where that leaves folks living here.

WHELTON: In a disaster of this scale, that is one of the takeaways here - in the absence of any credible authority providing help to a population, they will do what it takes to survive.

SIEGLER: Some fire survivors are buying water filtration systems. Whelton says those may not be safe. Or they're relying on a single point-in-time test for contaminants.

PAT ZINN: I had it done in January.

SIEGLER: In her kitchen in her home of more than four decades, 79-year-old Pat Zinn shows me the results of a 3-month-old test that showed her water was safe.

ZINN: They did say that it could change. So I should have it retested. But it's $100 every time we have it tested. So I guess I'm gambling.

SIEGLER: Zinn, who lives alone, is drinking the free bottled water. But despite the warnings, she's washing her clothes, showering and cooking with Paradise tap water.

ZINN: Something's going to get me one of these days anyway. So I'm not really that concerned about it.

SIEGLER: What she's more concerned about is the survival of her town, which she says hinges on its water crisis being solved.

ZINN: That's the big thing because if we don't have that taken care of, the town is going to die.

SIEGLER: Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Paradise, Calif.

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