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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

It may take Santa Rosa more than two years to fully replace the water system in an area of Fountaingrove where the drinking water was contaminated by benzene following the fires last year, a timeline some residents say is unacceptable and will prevent them from rebuilding.

In the most detailed explanation yet of the unfolding water crisis, city officials outlined in a public meeting how they believe the water system serving 350 home sites in the devastated neighborhood became contaminated with a cancer-causing hydrocarbon, and just how complicated, costly and time-consuming its replacement may be.

The contamination problem has been known since November, and the city has been open in recent months that its investigation into the source was zeroing in on melting plastic pipes and other components of the water system.

But Tuesday’s joint meeting of the City Council and the Board of Public Utilities was the first time residents learned that the fix was still a long way off, likely well past the time when their insurance payments for replacement housing will run out.

Carol Ellen, 70, said she and her partner had already spent $60,000 in various architectural fees and other costs preparing to rebuild, only to learn recently from the city that it might not be possible.

“We are ready to begin building in May. Now, what do we do?” Ellen said. “Where does our water come from?”

John Stratton, a Fountaingrove resident and engineer at Keysight Technologies said he relied on the city’s earlier “worst-case scenario” that a full replacement might take a year. He moved forward with rebuilding plans, spending thousands of dollars on architectural drawings and other costs.

“We were committed to rebuild last week,” said Stratton. “What I see here today, it might be the commitment is to move out of state.”

City officials said the water-system work would have to be done while other contractors were busy rebuilding homes in the area, complicating the overhaul. But Stratton said city officials were kidding themselves.

“Based on what I’ve heard today, you’re not going to be having a whole lot of it, because people are not going to be rebuilding,” he said.

City water officials, led by Ben Horenstein, director of Santa Rosa Water, outlined in detail how the city responded to the discovery of benzene in the system, leading to an investigation that has identified where it came from and how it got into the system.

Emma Walton, a water reuse engineer, explained that benzene, a hydrocarbon and a human carcinogen typically associated with gasoline, can leach out of plastics when heated to high temperatures. She said the city undertook the investigation into the source of the benzene in a “methodical and scientific manner,” that has considered a variety of possible sources. These included whether an underground fuel tank and contaminated soil may have permeated through the plastic pipes, an idea that was rejected.

The investigation came to focus instead on the plastic components in the water delivery system itself. Samples of burned pipes and gaskets from the valves and water meters were taken and analyzed by a forensic chemist. Tests that showed that when burned materials were soaked in clean water, the water came away contaminated with benzene and other hydrocarbons.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

One city photograph of the inside of a piece of an affected water main from the area showed a dark sooty material that chemist Kent Patton of Apex Laboratories said indicated that smoke and ash and soot from the burned home sites made it into the water mains.

The “dominant question” for the team, Horenstein explained, has been why this area of Fountaingrove got contamination in the water mains when others did not. Altogether, 1,420 homes in the Fountaingrove area were destroyed in the fires.

The contamination penetrated mains throughout a city-identified 184-acre area. There are 350 homesites in that zone and 13 homes that remain standing, and residents there are advised not to drink or bath in the hot water.

One of those homes is owned by Jerry Buhrz, who isn’t living in the home presently in part because of the water contamination.

“You can’t shower in it. You can’t brush your teeth with it. You can’t drink it,” said Buhrz, 75, who estimates that only about half of his neighbors plan to rebuild.

There have been about 50 locations outside the zone, including in Coffey Park, where tests of service lines to home — not water mains — have turned up traces of benzene, but those are of far less concern to water officials.

Horenstein stressed that while several areas of the city suffered similarly intense fires, only the Fountaingrove area “uniquely” endured an acute drop in pressure that could have caused the contaminants to be sucked back into the mains.

While officials didn’t delve into it in the meeting, Horenstein has previously said one of the city’s tanks in Fountaingrove was empty at the time of the fire since it was undergoing seismic upgrades. The city’s water pumps lost power amid the firestorm, contributing to a loss of pressure in the system, which firefighters noted to their dismay during the Oct. 8 and Oct. 9 firefight.

Backflow prevention devices, which might have prevented such contamination of the mains, were not required at homes in the area and typically not installed, explained Jennifer Burke, the city’s deputy director of water and engineering resources.

She stressed that the city is taking 170 water samples per day and plans to test each and every one of the more than 3,000 service lines to homes burned in the city.

The city has taken extensive efforts to flush the lines clean and in some cases scrub them with “pigs” that act like large circular sponges to scrub the interior of the pipes. But while they helped, the contamination eventually returned, suggesting the contaminants has been absorbed into the system and were leaching out, officials said.

This has led the city to conclude that it needs to replace the entire system in the advisory zone, but only the service lines in other parts of the city where needed.

Just how large an undertaking the system replacement would be became clearer when water officials told the Board of Public Utilities recently that the costs, because of the complexity of the project, had soared to $43 million from early estimates of less than half that. Horenstein cautioned against putting too much credence in either the $43 million figure or the two-year estimate. He put the cost at between $30 million and $40 million, and said it was “premature” to even float a timeframe, but felt compelled to do so because of the intense public interest.

Nevertheless, Lori Urbanek, the city’s supervising engineer, said in the best-case scenario, the project could be completed in two years from the time that the decision is made to move forward. That includes about three months to get the contractors lined up.

To speed construction, Urbanek explained the city is looking at a number of options, including doing a design-build process instead of traditional bidding, phasing construction and offering incentives to contractors to move quickly.

But there are lots of issues that the city can’t control, such as the location other utilities in the area. To drive that point home, she showed a photo of an unearthed Pacific Gas & Electric gas line right on top of a waterline, which she said was “unexpected.” That was just one location, she said. “There are miles of what we don’t know about yet,” she said.

Water officials said they would need six to eight weeks to formulate a plan to bring back to the council.

Scott Adams, who lost his home, told the council that two years “maybe, kinda, sorta” was unacceptable.

“We’re living in an 800-square-foot apartment on Santa Rosa Avenue, and I can tell you we’re not happy campers,” Adams said. “Two years is too long to be out of a house.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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