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More benzene found in Santa Rosa water tests after Sonoma County fires

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Benzene, the cancer-causing chemical that city officials believe was sucked into its water system in a heavily burned area of Fountaingrove, is continuing to be discovered outside the advisory area, including one place in Coffey Park, city officials acknowledged for the first time this week.

But officials insist the new findings are not an indication the problems in Fountaingrove are migrating to other parts of the city.

However, they have now found 20 locations outside the Fountaingrove advisory zone with elevated levels of benzene. Fourteen of the locations were identified in the last month after the city aggressively expanded its testing program.

All but one — a burned lot on Waring Court in Coffey Park — were located near the advisory zone in Fountaingrove.

City officials said the new problems have been easy to resolve, confirming their conclusion that the 184-acre advisory area in Fountaingrove has a unique and pervasive problem far different than any other area of the city.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8140783-181/more-benzene-found-in-santa?ref=most

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Fountaingrove water system needs $43 million replacement due to contamination after Sonoma County fires

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The entire water-delivery system in a 184-acre section of the devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood will likely need replacement after becoming contaminated with benzene, and it appears the city will initially be on the hook for a project whose estimated costs have soared to $43 million.

The intensive investigation into the exact cause of the contamination continues, but officials say they now understand how the cancer-causing hydrocarbon found in gasoline and plastics made it into the water mains in the area.

The city’s team of water engineers, consultants and regulators is “converging on the recommended approach” that would require the “full replacement of the distribution system, from the water mains to the meters on the properties” and related equipment like fire hydrants within the advisory area, Ben Horenstein, director of Santa Rosa Water, said Thursday.

The cost of that solution, which Horenstein had previously estimated at up to $20 million, has now more than doubled, and completion may take significantly longer than the year he initially hoped.

The development raises a host of questions about how quickly the devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood, which lost 1,420 homes in the Tubbs fire, may be able to recover, how the city can fund the needed repairs, and what it means for residents who still live there.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8144221-181/city-fountaingrove-water-system-needs

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Benzene found outside Fountaingrove contamination area

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa may be zeroing in on the cause of the contamination in the water supply of the devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood, but there are also troubling signs that the problem may extend beyond the immediate advisory area.

Since Jan. 24, when the city last released detailed test results, the city has found 58 additional instances of benzene in the drinking water in the Fountaingrove area. The vast majority came from the 184-acre area north and south of Fountain Grove Parkway around Fir Ridge Drive, an area once home to 350 families. Only 13 homes remain following the October wildfires.

Residents of the area have been under a strict advisory for months to not drink or boil the water while the city tries to find the source of the contamination and fix the problem, something that could cost upwards of $20 million if the area’s water system needs replacement.

But a handful of tests have recently detected benzene in areas outside the advisory zone, a new development that may complicate the 3-month-long hunt for the cause of the contamination.

In response, the city is launching a more aggressive regimen of water tests covering all the burned areas of the city, including Coffey Park, in its effort to make sure other burn zones aren’t experiencing similar problems.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8025423-181/benzene-found-outside-fountaingrove-contamination

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Water contamination plagues surviving homes in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa officials are scrambling to figure out why the drinking water in a wildfire-ravaged section of Fountaingrove is contaminated with a chemical commonly found in plastics and gasoline.

A team of local water quality officials, regulators and experts has been working for 2½ months to understand how the volatile hydrocarbon benzene is getting into the water system and how to fix the problem.

They suspect the heat of the Tubbs fire, which incinerated 1,400 homes in the area, may have damaged parts of the water delivery system, such as plastic water pipes or meters, and caused the dangerous carcinogen to leech into the neighborhood’s water supply.

But despite hundreds of water tests, detailed mapping of the results and targeted equipment replacement, the problem still persists, leaving officials confounded and a $20 million replacement of the water system a real possibility.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/7914293-181/water-contamination-plagues-surviving-homes?ref=most

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Mushrooms soak up fire debris toxics in stormwater

Stett Holbrook, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

The disaster of October’s wildfires didn’t stop once the flames were finally extinguished. The toxic ash left by the firestorms—incinerated plastics, hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals—lay like a ticking bomb on home sites, awaiting a rain storm to wash the deadly debris into drains and creeks. Once in waterways, the lethal plume could infiltrate watersheds and imperil drinking water and aquatic life. But thanks to an unprecedented public-private partnership, protection from that environmental hazard in hard-hit areas like Coffey Park, Larkfield-Wikiup and Fountain Grove has come from an unlikely source: mushrooms.

Erik Ohlsen, a landscape architect and permaculture educator, saw that second wave of disaster coming and acted quickly to rally a diverse team of volunteers, environmental groups, landowners and public agencies to deploy cutting-edge bioremediation techniques using mushrooms and compost to absorb and neutralize the deadly runoff. He created the Fire Remediation Action Coalition on Facebook to help organize the effort and spread the word.

And word spread quickly. The project took off as another example of the volunteerism and generosity that have characterized local efforts after the fire. Sebastopol’s Gourmet Mushrooms donated thousands of pounds of substrate used to grow mushrooms. Sonoma Compost and West Marin Compost donated compost. Petaluma’s Wattle Guy provided, you guessed it, wattles—barriers and fences made from natural materials like rice straw and sticks. And groups like Russian Riverkeepers and the Clean River Alliance marshaled volunteers to make, fill and install the wattles and monitor water flow during and after the recent rains.

Read more at: Natural Remedy | Features | North Bay Bohemian

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Fire retardant use explodes as worries about water, wildlife grow

Matt Weiser, KQED SCIENCE

In 2014, scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service published a study showing that two fire-retardant formulations are deadly to Chinook salmon, even when heavily diluted in streams.

Chemical fire retardants are considered a vital wildland firefighting tool, helping to slow the spread of flames while ground crews move into position. But as their use increases, the harmful side effects of these chemicals are coming under increasing scrutiny.

The chemicals, usually dropped from low-flying aircraft, largely consist of ammonia compounds, which are known toxins to fish and other aquatic life. Studies have shown retardants can kill fish, alter soil chemistry, feed harmful algae blooms and even encourage the spread of invasive plants. Yet there is little regulation of their use, and no safer alternatives on the market.

In California, state firefighting crews have applied 15.3 million gallons of chemical fire retardants so far this year, according to data provided by CalFire, the state’s wildland firefighting agency. That’s a new record, and double the amount used just three years ago.

CalFire applied 2.7 million gallons of retardant in a single one-week period starting October 9 – also a record. Of that amount, about 2 million gallons were used on the North Bay wildfires, which killed 43 people and burned more than 8,000 structures in October as they swept across several counties north of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Sonoma and Napa.

Read more at: Fire Retardant Use Explodes as Worries About Water, Wildlife Grow | KQED Science

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Berkeley Lab studies effects of North Bay fires on Sonoma County water

Matthew Lo, THE DAILY CALIFORNIAN

Another article on this study

With the coming rainy season, some Sonoma County residents are fearful of the effects of runoff from the recent North Bay fires entering the nearby Russian River, a major source of water for Sonoma and Marin counties.

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are studying the fire’s impact on the Russian River and the groundwater system, which serves about 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties, according to an article published by the lab last week.

The fires, which began Oct. 8, burned more than 100,000 acres and destroyed more than 5,700 structures. Many UC Berkeley students hail from the affected area and were subsequently uprooted from their communities.

The lab is also working with the United States Geological Survey, or USGS, and Sonoma County Water Agency, or SCWA, to monitor water quality in Sonoma County, according to an SCWA press release published last month.

There are six riverbank filtration systems located along and around Sonoma County’s Russian River, according to Michelle Newcomer, a postdoctoral fellow in the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division at the lab.

These riverbank systems, which pump river water 20 meters underground to natural aquifers, use sediments and environmental aerobic microbes to filter the water, according to Newcomer.

Read more at: Berkeley Lab studies effects of North Bay fires on Sonoma County water

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Damage to creeks, water supply analyzed after Sonoma County fires

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

It’s called “first flush,” the rain that fell last week upon the scars of recent wildfires and threatened to wash into local streams whatever ash, debris or contaminants had been left upon the landscape.

From fire retardant to heavy metals to organic byproducts and exposed sediment, anything left behind by the flames was at risk of being swept into storm drains and streams during the season’s first substantial rains, experts said.

Public agencies are hopeful that a feverish effort to deploy thousands of straw wattles and other barriers around burned structures, charred hillsides and storm drain inlets prevented some pollution from occurring with storm runoff.

But strategic stream testing will help measure their success as water quality engineers and experts gear up for what will be a long-term campaign to protect water resources and restore scorched watersheds into the rainy season and beyond.

“Healthy watersheds mean a healthy environment, and right now we have a very unhealthy watershed,” said Sonoma Clean Power Director of Programs Cordel Stillman, who is helping to coordinate county and municipal watershed recovery projects in the wake of the wildfire disaster.

Read more at: Damage to creeks, water supply analyzed after Sonoma County fires

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A secondary disaster

Letter to the Editor, PRESS DEMOCRAT

EDITOR: An article in last Wednesday’s paper quoted officials regarding the urgency for fire clean-up before winter rains commence (“With upcoming rain, fear of contamination”). Property owners are reluctant thus far to allow government to clean up their toxic ash and may be setting the stage for a secondary tragedy: massive polluting of our waterways.

Remaining ash, containing an eviscerated combination of toxic products, may be washed into the water or settle on gardens and farms to do irreparable damage. This stuff is so toxic that men in white suits with masks, gloves and boots have to remove it to a special place where they allow toxic wastes.

It is time-consuming, dirty, expensive and hazardous. And it needs to be done immediately before the heavy rains begin.

Those holding off may find it hard to find qualified people to do the job properly and affordably so they can obtain permits to rebuild. Time is of the essence to get it done. Please sign your right-of-entry form, and let others arrange to do the work free of charge.

It’s a hard choice. We feel sympathy for people having to make it, but the effects could be so dire, it might greatly compound the suffering and loss.

BRENDA ADELMAN, Russian River Watershed Protection Committee

Source: Wednesday’s Letters to the Editor

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After the Napa fires, toxic ash threatens soil, streams, and the San Francisco Bay

Adam Rogers, WIRED

By any measure, the fires that tore through Northern California were a major disaster. Forty-two people are dead, and 100,000 are displaced. More than 8,400 homes and other buildings were destroyed, more than 160,000 acres burned—and the fires aren’t all out yet.

That devastation leaves behind another potential disaster: ash. No one knows how much. It’ll be full of heavy metals and toxins—no one knows exactly how much, and it depends on what burned and at what temperature. The ash will infiltrate soils, but no one’s really sure how or whether that’ll be a problem. And eventually some of it—maybe a lot—will flow into the regional aquatic ecosystem and ultimately the San Francisco Bay.

That’s the bomb. Here’s the timer: An old, grim joke about the California says that the state only has three seasons: summer, fire, and mudslides. Those mudslides happen because of rain; the Santa Ana (or Diablo, if you’d prefer) wind-driven wildfires of autumn give way to a monsoon season that lasts through winter and into spring. The rains of 2016-2017 ended a longstanding drought and broke all kinds of records.

Scientists and environmental health agencies know, mostly, what to expect from ash that comes from burned vegetation. But these fires included something a little new. They burned through the wildland-urban interface and into cities. “For how many structures that were burned in fairly small areas in these fires, I think that’s a first-of-its-kind event,” says Geoffrey Plumlee, associate director of environmental health for the US Geological Survey. “The concern is, can they get it cleaned up before the heavy rains come?”

Read more at: After the Napa Fires, Toxic Ash Threatens Soil, Streams, and the San Francisco Bay | WIRED