Bill Wattenburg’s Bio: Blue Water (Copper) Contamination in Homes


This is the latest of Wattenburg’s bizarre escapades reported in press stories all over the country. We contacted many of the people who were on the scene to get interesting parts of this story that were not covered by the press.

Hundreds of expensive new homes in the affluent area of Danville, California, had suffered serious copper contamination (blue water) for several years. Lawsuits were filed in all directions because homeowners had to use bottled water, children in schools had become sick, and home values were dropping. Neither the water company (EBMUD) nor the home builders would take responsibility. Both had spent over $5,000,000 on water corrosion experts and lawyers who were investigating the problem.

A professor of civil engineering who was on the project at times has told us that he could show us hundreds of technical reports on blue water from around the world in the last fifty years where corrosion experts have been unable to completely explain the cause of “blue water”. He told us: “In many cases the problem just mysteriously goes away for reasons that ‘corrosion experts’ cannot adequately explain, although most take credit for doing something the solved their local problem. However, each one claims he found a different solution that does not seem to work everywhere else.”

We called Wattenburg to tell us why and how he solved the problem in Danville. He cautioned us immediately that he did not completely solve the problem, in spite of what the newspaper and technical journals reported. He said: “It is one thing to isolate a problem and then make it go away. I do that with obnoxious people all the time. But it is another thing to explain why they came around in the first place.” (This may have been a message to us, but he softened up after that.)

Here is his story:

He said he got involved when some Danville home owners called him on his KGO radio show in May 1991. They pleaded with him to help them because they were losing their life savings in the value of their homes. They described the blue water problem to him on the air. They told him that there was conclusive proof that the contamination was copper hydroxide. They told him that the only copper pipes were the water pipes in their homes. He says he “shot his mouth off and told them that good scientists should have no problem finding the problem very quickly if they did the proper experiments.”

“They asked me how much I thought it should cost. I stupidly said that it shouldn’t cost more than a few thousand dollars for a good scientist to make the right measurements. I told them to call the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory which is right near them. The next day, I got a call from the Livermore Lab saying they were getting calls from people pleading with them to help, and the newspapers were asking them why the laboratory didn’t help solve this serious problem. Livermore said they couldn’t get involved because there was litigation going on and the water company was a public agency that had not requested their services. I got the picture, but I was stuck. I went out there the next day to take a look.”

A civil engineering professor who was working on the problem as a consultant to the homebuilders told us the story we summarize below:

He says that Wattenburg quickly made a startling discovery right in the faces of the water corrosion experts who had been working on the problem for a year. They had been studying only the corrosion characteristics of the water in the house pipes. They had expensive water chemistry testing laboratories set up in the garages of two blue water homes supplied by the builders. Wattenburg walked out of one of these laboratories while they were still telling him about all their experiments. He got some things out of his car. Then he stuck some small copper rods into the ground at various points around the house and measured the voltages between these points with a little voltmeter that he carried in his pocket. They thought he was a little strange.

He found electrical voltages of about half a volt in the ground all around the homes and between the ground and the water pipes in the homes. “He did this within about twenty minutes after he arrived. The gadgets he had in the trunk of his car looked like an electronics laboratory. He then told us to go to the hardware store and buy all the small copper wire we could find, I remember the driver asking him how much? He calmly said: ‘Oh, about a mile of it, if you can,’ It was rather amazing what we did all the rest of that day.”

“Wattenburg made some more measurements around and inside several more blue water houses. Then he told all the corrosion consultants who were gathered around that the problem probably wasn’t in the houses or in their copper water pipes. The real cause was most likely coming from the power lines or EBMUD water mains somehow. At that point, most of them walked away shaking their heads. Wattenburg told me that he was surprised that these guys were corrosion experts. He said that the corrosion was most likely happening because there was electrochemistry going on in the copper pipes. He said that they obviously hadn’t worried about what was producing the ‘electro’ part of the electrochemistry they thought they were studying. It made sense to me after I thought about it a while… .

“I remember one of them asking him what degrees or credentials he had as a corrosion engineer. I’ll never forget what Wattenburg said to the guy. He asked the guy how long he had been working on this problem. This very huffy guy said he had been working on the project for a year. Wattenburg told him: ‘Where I went to school. we don’t give degrees to engineers who can’t solve a problem in a year.’

“Fortunately, I knew who Wattenburg was. I remembered what he had done to a lot of big-time engineers on the BART project many years earlier. I found it best to just help him and see what would happen… .

“The water company, EBMUD, claimed that Wattenburg’s theory was nonsense. The water mains leading into the houses were plastic lines. They said these lines couldn’t possibly feed electrical current into the house water pipes. Wattenburg asked them to explain the electrical voltages he found in the ground and between the houses. They pointed the finger at the power company, PG&E. I remember Wattenburg smiling as he told us: ‘Well, that will get PG&E out here to help us in a hurry, won’t it?’

“The next thing he did was cut all the electrical power off from the test houses and measure the voltages again. The voltages in the ground and on the house water pipes were still there. I saw him go down the street opening manholes to the water mains all over the place while suspicious EBMUD employees got on their mobile phones and called their office.

“Over the next few weeks, Wattenburg used his long copper wires to measure voltages along the large steel water mains which were buried deep underground. The water company had told him that there was no way they would dig up the lines at various points so he could measure them. So, he figured out a very clever way that no one had thought about before. The water mains were protected by devices called sacrificial anodes which are connected to the lines below ground. But electrical wires attached to these devices are brought up to the ground at various places along the lines, about every half mile. This is why he wanted the mile of copper wire. We stretched the copper wire between the anode stations and he measured the voltage from one to the next. In this way, he mapped the voltages on the steel water mains all the way to the water storage tanks where the lines began up on the hills.”

The home builders assigned one of their construction superintendents to help Wattenburg. Here is what he observed:

“The Power company, PG&E, was real happy to help him. He was getting them off the hook for ten million dollars of liability. I remember one day he calmly told them to cut the power off of a whole area in Danville because he had to be sure that these water main voltages were not coming from the PG&E power lines. I couldn’t believe it when a whole goddamn shopping center went dead right before my eyes about fifteen minutes later… he only wanted it off for a few minutes… . Hell, they’d have put me in jail if I had even cut their power accidentally.

“It really became a circus after that. The water company, EBMUD, realized what he was doing. They refused to give him permission to measure the voltages on their water mains at places where their lines were behind fences and near their pumping plants. Wattenburg just told us to get more copper wire. PG&E sent out two more line crews that very day and they helped stretch the copper wires around these areas for a mile or more while EBMUD employees stood guard at their gates to make sure he didn’t trespass on their property. It was like two armies facing off each other on the battle line. It was ludicrous. These are two companies that are supposed to be public utilities… .

“Wattenburg’s answer was to call the newspapers and tell them to come out and watch what was happening. The reporters showed up in droves. It was on the TV news for several days. Finally, the general manager of EBMUD threw in the towel and asked to see Wattenburg. Wattenburg told him to come out where he was working. They had a private conversation while Wattenburg continued to make measurements along the water mains. EBMUD announced that they were going to join the investigation the next day. The EBMUD gates and all the pumping plants were opened for Wattenburg.

“A PG&E engineer told me that an hour after Wattenburg walked into the first EBMUD pumping plant, I think it was called the New Scenic East Plant, he found a major problem that EBMUD engineers had told the newspapers just couldn’t possibly happen. I remember this big-shot from EBMUD saying on television that all the EBMUD water mains and their pumping plants were completely isolated from the power lines. He said that they had double-checked that there was no electricity getting into their water mains or plants.

“Wattenburg got PG&E to cut off the power to the plant for a few minutes and he did some measurements that even the PG&E engineers didn’t understand. They objected as well as the EBMUD engineers. However, the PG&E manager ordered them to do what Wattenburg wanted. I think the PG&E manager’s name was Walt Musso from Walnut Creek. Wattenburg then showed EBMUD that they had a major electrical short across the water mains leading into and out of the plant.

“This hit the newspapers the next day. The EBMUD public relations people were eating crow. EBMUD construction crews were working for the next month digging enormous holes around the plant to find and fix the short in the water mains that were supposed to be isolated from the PG&E lines.”

He told us a funny story that happened next:

“Wattenburg casually told the EBMUD construction foreman one day that they should not do something he had observed them doing with a big backhoe near this enormous water main that led into the pumping plant. The foreman said that he had been operating backhoes for twenty years and he had never broken a water line yet. He said that he was going to dig out all the dirt around the large main line for about a hundred feet. He bragged that they wouldn’t even have to turn off the water pressure in the line and interrupt service to their customers while they were doing it. Wattenburg told them that that was what he was afraid of. Wattenburg did a quick calculation of the pressure forces in the curved pipe they were exposing. The foreman laughed and said that EBMUD engineers had done their own calculations, or something to that effect.

“Wattenburg told the PG&E crews working with us that they should get the hell out there for a while. About an hour later, while we were having coffee at the Blackhawk Cafe, the water main burst and it looked like Niagara Falls had appeared on the hillside above Danville. Wattenburg didn’t even look surprised when we hollered at him to come see what had happened. He didn’t even look up from the newspaper he was reading…”

A PG&E lineman remembered:

“Wattenburg did most of his work at night for the next two months. He would show up sometimes at two in the morning and work until dawn. PG&E would send my crew out to help him whenever he wanted us.”

Finally, Wattenburg put the word out that he had located the source of the blue water problem. There was a big news conference. Wattenburg showed the press some maps of how he had traced the electrical voltages all over the maze of water mains in the Danville-Blackhawk area. The voltages all followed one new water main that EBMUD had installed a few years earlier, the New Scenic Line, I believe. This was one of the new super-insulated water mains that was wrapped with a thick plastic coating so that no electrical current from the ground could get into the line and corrode it. Wattenburg explained that this also turned this new water main into a very good insulated electrical power line that could carry small electrical currents for long distances without the current being dissipated into the ground. Older water mains that are not so well insulated quickly lose any current that gets onto them.

Walt Musso, the PG&E manager who was assigned to work with Wattenburg tells about the dramatic meeting that he attended with Wattenburg the day before the press conference:

They met the engineering and operations managers from EBMUD at a PG&E office in Dublin. Wattenburg had asked them to bring their maps of the entire EBMUD water system in the Danville area with them. The EBMUD engineering manager had been very defiant toward Wattenburg all along. He had been insisting to the press that Wattenburg was just on a wild goose chase and a publicity stunt.

Musso remembered that Wattenburg began the meeting with a short discussion of what happened to all the top BART engineers years earlier when they had refused to tell the truth about technical problems in the BART system that endangered many people. Then he pushed a map across the table to the EBMUD managers. This map showed that the voltages he had measured all centered around one new water main that Wattenburg had tracked for so many days and nights. Wattenburg let them study the map for a while. The EBMUD engineering manager said this was “all a lot of bullshit.”

“Wattenburg turned to the EBMUD operations manager and told him very sternly: ‘You know damn well that all the blue water houses are served by just this one new water main, don’t you?’ The engineering manager got up and walked out. The others wouldn’t answer for several minutes. Wattenburg confronted the operations manager: ‘You’ve known this all along, haven’t you? God-damn-it, I’m giving you a chance to keep your asses out of a lot of trouble. Now make it quick, or I’m going to turn all of my maps and yours over to the district attorney. I notice on your new water service maps that you carefully didn’t show which water mains all the blue water houses are connected to, but you show the connections for all the other houses in the area.’

“The operations manager nodded sheepishly and admitted that Wattenburg was right. That is all he would say for a few minutes. We just sat there looking at each other in disbelief. Finally, Wattenburg demanded: ‘Is it true that you have known all along that the blue water houses are all fed from this one new line?’ One EBMUD guy tried to say that the new and old water mains are crisscrossed all over the area such that one house may be connected to an old line and the house next door is connected to the new line. Wattenburg snapped: ‘Yes, and that is why some of the poor bastards put their life savings into a house they thought was safe because the neighbor didn’t have blue water. They had no way of knowing that their dream house was connected to your new water main. How long have you known this?’

“The operations manager pulled out a map that they had not shown us at the beginning of the meeting. He said they had just made this map ‘a few weeks ago.’ Wattenburg looked at it. It confirmed what he had discovered in all his work. This crude EBMUD map showed that all the blue water houses were connected to the New Scenic East Line. Wattenburg told them he hoped that they could convince a judge that they had just discovered this and hadn’t known it for all the time that EBMUD had been blaming the home builders and letting homeowners suffer and spend million of dollars….

“Wattenburg asked them why they hadn’t told anybody about this. The operations manager said that EBMUD engineers and attorneys didn’t consider it significant because it didn’t prove what was really causing the blue water. It just localized where it was occurring. They still insisted that the only copper was in the copper water pipes in the homes and that the EBMUD water lines couldn’t be the problem no matter how the homes were hooked up. Wattenburg told them that they weren’t sending the copper into the houses. EBMUD’s new water main was clearly sending something worse that was making the copper come off the water pipes in the blue water houses. ‘And you guys had better find out what it is. I’m sure as hell not going to do it for you.’

“The EBMUD engineering manager came back to the meeting and didn’t say a word. He picked up their maps and they left. Wattenburg commented as we left: ‘You want to bet that even the FBI won’t be able to find that one map anywhere tomorrow?’ We went over to a nearby bar for lunch. He curled up in his car afterwards and went to sleep.”

Wattenburg quit the investigation after the newspapers announced his discovery of the “Blue Water Pipeline” (San Francisco Chronicle, September 19, 1991, page A17). He said that he had done his part and he didn’t want to get involved in litigation. EBMUD’s New Scenic East Line became known as the ‘Blue Water Line’ after that. EBMUD didn’t deny it any longer. They organized a multi-million dollar task force to solve the problem. Later press reports say that they and the homebuilders are working together to try to cure the problem with the water line.

Our professor contact says that he is surprised that Wattenburg didn’t continue with his research and publish the results of his investigation in the technical journals somewhere. He points out that blue water is still a serious problem around the world. He feels that maybe Wattenburg didn’t want to be associated with “corrosion engineers” whom he often described as “guess-work artists”. He says that Wattenburg was the only one who wasn’t paid by one side or the other in the controversy. He said he once asked Wattenburg whom he was working for and Wattenburg answered: “Me. That way I don’t have to go to court. This is what happens to you when you shoot your mouth off at the wrong time.”

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