Paradise asked for aid to deal with toxic water system. Gov. Newsom’s budget falls short

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget leaves several Camp Fire-beleaguered agencies hanging, including a water district that has requested a $22 million state bailout while it deals with mass contamination of the Paradise drinking water.

Newsom, in his announced budget Thursday, said he would provide $10 million in one-time funds to support Butte County “communities in their recovery from the unprecedented devastation of the Camp Fire.”

That amount, though, is considerably less than the $30 million-plus requested by a handful of local governments who say they are struggling to maintain basic services in the wake of the November fire that destroyed most of Paradise, Concow and Magalia, and sent thousands of refugees to temporarily live in Chico, Oroville and other nearby towns.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, said he is grateful to Newsom for recognizing the ongoing need for state support of the affected communities, and added that he planned to meet with the governor’s staff as early as Thursday afternoon to continue talks about ongoing needs in the fire area.

“This is a move in the right direction,” he told The Bee on Thursday. “We are not at final budget yet. The governor has been responsive throughout the process.”

Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who also represents the fire area, said he plans to meet with the governor’s finance director next week and press the point that Butte needs more help. “We are emphasizing this is going to be several years of effort here,” Nielsen said. “This is a sustaining issue.”

The Paradise Irrigation District, which supplies water to the city of Paradise, is asking for $22 million to avoid bankruptcy while it cleans cancer-causing benzene the fire deposited in its pipes, a shocking problem detailed last month in The Sacramento Bee.

Paradise water officials are negotiating, meanwhile, with federal disaster relief officials for funding to replace contaminated pipes. That project could take up to two years and cost anywhere from $50 million to several hundred million dollars, depending upon the amount of contamination found in the system.

The $22 million request the water district made to the governor would be used for regular operating expenses to keep the agency solvent during that recovery time period, local officials said.

Water officials say they believe the extreme heat of the firestorm created a “toxic cocktail” of gases in burning homes that got sucked into the water pipes when the system depressurized from use by residents and firefighters. Thirty percent of early tests showed cancer-causing benzene in the system.

“There is additional money that is needed for the water system up there to assure it is safe,” Gallagher said. “We are going to keep talking about what is needed and try to get additional funds.”

The city of Chico, which was not burned, wants $3 million to help it deal with a spike in crime, car crashes, mental health issues and sewage after thousands of fire refugees flocked to town. Oroville is similarly asking for $2 million. Another Butte water district has requested $4 million. An adult day care center in Chico wants $500,000.

The Paradise school district is asking for financial help to bus students up the hill to schools in town this fall.

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