This story is part of Covering Climate Now’s Food & Water joint coverage week. More on that below!
Andrew Whelton is a professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University with a focus on water infrastructure and disasters.
In other words—he’s the guy government officials, utilities, and residents call when there are concerns that a hurricane, wildfire, or other disaster might have contaminated a water supply.
For the past four years, Andrew has been traveling to such areas to provide guidance and conduct studies. His research
has identified ways water contamination spreads after wildfires, which has helped inform what types of testing should be done to identify potential issues. As you’ll hear from Andrew below, there has historically been little guidance for local officials and utilities on how to handle water contamination after disasters, a void that has left some survivors in dangerous situations, not knowing whether their water was safe to use. So, he also shares helpful advice and resources through the Center from Plumbing Safety
for experts and residents alike to learn from.
A MWOF subscriber recommended we connect (a reminder you can always reach me directly by responding to these emails), and I called up Andrew in late May to get an introduction to his work and the questions around infrastructure and accountability he’s trying to address.
Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Colleen Hagerty: How did water infrastructure and disasters become your focus?
Andrew Whelton: One of my non-academic jobs that I had, I went to different military posts with the US Army and helped people understand how to investigate potential contamination, respond to and recover from it, how to make decisions, and what decisions you need to make to protect the people that you’re serving from harm. So, it may be there are illnesses and we don’t know what’s going on, or there’s this chemical odor in the water and such. Generally, there are no prescriptive guidance, documents, procedures, or protocols for how to make those decisions, that’s primarily why I focused on it.
CH: Tell me about what your fieldwork in disaster-struck areas looks like. Do you go to areas in the immediate aftermath of an event or does it tend to be a need that arises in the longer term?
AW: Initially it is right after, so, for example, in the first 24 to 48 hours for wildfire, the community is trying to maintain safety, evacuate, and maintain water pressure to the fire hydrants and the buildings so that the firefighters can fight the fires and save lives. After that, what they do is they go through and they start assessing damage. What assets have been destroyed? Where might they have leaks? Generally, I get involved directly in that process when we’re either receiving calls about what to do from state agencies or water companies, whether it be private or public, and basically walk them through the stepwise process to kind of assess their system, test it, and bring it back to safe use.
And this is where you can apply science, when we get information from people, like, there are these odors in the water, or there’s no odor, but there’s reports of headaches or vomiting or illnesses, what do we do? So you would isolate, you would stagnate the water and then you would test it, flush it, stagnate it again, and you would look for these chemicals of concern.
The same questions and issues crosscut chemical contamination, chemical spills, potential contamination, wildfires, and hurricanes where they have destroyed tanks and released materials into the floodwaters that find their way into the distribution systems or buildings — it’s the same science, it’s just applying it to a different context. And nationally there isn’t an approach for doing this.
Sometimes we go out and we help people directly, and other times, we’re sitting in the meetings with all the agencies, and many of the players that are in the meetings—the federal, the state, the county agencies—this might be the first time they’ve ever been involved in this. So we kind of walk them through the process, like, it’s going to take you two weeks typically to do this. You need to make these decisions; you need to worry about this. This is how you do sampling. And sometimes we don’t go, like in New Mexico
, we’re advising from afar and then the local communities then stand up on their own to basically help themselves.
CH: Part of the work you’re doing is looking into ways to prevent wide-scale water contamination. What does that work entail?
AW: After wildfires, there are three major concerns: safety, power, and pressure. One is the safety of your workers and the population. The other one is maintaining water pressure, and if you lose water pressure—let’s say a house burns down and there’s a water pipe that goes to that house and has pressure. Well, if you go to that house and the system has pressure, you’ll see a little water fountain spurting out of the basement or crawlspace or whatnot.
If that pipe loses pressure, then chemicals like ash, debris, and soot can find their way back into the water system, and now it’s a direct connection back to the buried pipes beneath the ground on the street. And so the key is to maintain water pressure so that you could have a fountain in this burned basement, but at least there’s no chemical getting back into the water system. Because when chemicals get back into the water system, let’s say you’re on a cul-de-sac and one home burns down and you lose pressure, a lot of debris gets sucked in and then what happens is the utility re-pressurizes and starts pushing that contamination throughout that cul-de-sac, and it starts going up into other people’s properties that never had damage to the property, but now they have contaminated water.
Power is a big issue that we saw on the Marshall fire because almost all utilities have natural gas backup generators. Well, it turns out the natural gas provider shut off the natural gas, so all the utilities lost power, and when they lost power, some of them lost pressure. The power utility did not know they were shutting off the water systems, and the water systems had to pitch a fit and say put the power back on—firefighters are out there, they’re relying on the water, and now there’s a potential that they’re going to run out of water to fight fires and the entire town is going to burn down.
The other side of this is we’re doing studies on understanding the potential for plastic pipes and other materials to thermally decompose and release chemicals directly into the water. So we are evaluating which materials are potentially most vulnerable to damage and then causing contamination, and ultimately, you would then translate that to whether it is or is not acceptable to use these materials under these situations. As more water systems burn up and taxpayer money comes from Washington DC to all these communities—and we’re talking hundreds and millions of dollars to basically rebuild infrastructure because it was susceptible to damage—these questions need to be answered.
CH: Thinking about all of these considerations that have to be made as residents return to disaster-impacted areas and potentially to their homes—how are these risks communicated to them?
AW: Right, so generally after a fire or a chemical spill or some event that damages the drinking water system and might contaminate it, you’re concerned about acute health impacts. Like, if I use the water, am I going to get sick now?
Now, utilities and states don’t agree upon who’s responsible for telling people not to use the water for certain activities. So some states tell you that it is the utility responsibility to determine what water use conditions are allowed. In other places, like Colorado after the Marshall fire, the department of public health issued water use advisories to the utilities that were affected, so it’s policy-specific by state.
One of the issues we saw for the [2018 California] Camp Fire was that I think there were four or five different agencies that told people to do something different with the water. The state, the utilities, the county, the federal agencies, and my team was there, as well. And the reason why people are told different things is because the people that are making decisions and writing their water use advisories don’t actually understand what they should be writing about.
CH: And when you say ‘different things,’ is it, like, someone says boil; someone says don’t use it at all?
AW: Correct. So in the town of Paradise, they had over 500 parts per billion of benzene in their water. 500 parts per billion of benzene is basically characteristic hazardous waste. Now the Paradise Irrigation District issued a do not drink, do not boil advisory. So don’t drink the water and don’t boil it, because we don’t want you to be chemically exposed to the vapors when you boil hot contaminated water. The water utility next door to Paradise, one mile away, they also experienced extensive damage and had over 500 parts per billion of benzene, and they didn’t tell people not to do that. They issued a boil water advisory, and then they lifted it and they didn’t issue anything else.
So I had one person, a daughter, called me who was on that system and her mom was on the Paradise system, and she said, ‘I just read that there’s, like, 530 parts per billion in our system, and we’re told that we can use the water. But, you know, my mom’s system also has that and she’s told that she can’t. Why?’
CH: So the Camp Fire was four years ago, you’ve mentioned a few more recent wildfires—have you seen any signs of the states or utilities improving the way they respond to water contamination as these disasters keep happening over and over again, fueled in part by climate change?
AW: The Camp Fire in California was a disaster from a policy perspective. This year, the California Department of Public Health published a peer-reviewed study
showing that plastics and vegetative debris in the area can be sucked in or generated on site and contaminate the water system. In Colorado [after the Marshall Fire], there was a classic example of supporting public water systems and communities that I trumpet nationally. So, there is movement.
CH: On the federal side, have you seen or heard any interest in establishing national standards or funding more research in this space?
AW: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a fact sheet
about what to think about if your water system is responding to a fire, and that was tremendous leadership, because utilities started downloading that and reading it; state agencies downloaded that and read it, so the best response from a public health protection standpoint is if everybody in the room understands what they’re up against. Then, you can start having some really deep, focused discussions on what are the actions we need to take? When do we need to take them? Where are we going to find the resources to do that?
It’s just that we’ve got to get everybody up to speed at a certain conversational level so that they can make decisions to best protect their communities.
A big thanks again to Andrew for his time and sharing his expertise. You can read more about his work here.