Toxic waste cleanup from fire un­der way

Mop-up’s first stage in­volves heavy met­als, chem­i­cals, as­bestos

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Kur­tis Alexan­der

What Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials are call­ing the state’s big­gest dis­as­ter cleanup in decades be­gan this week with crews in masks and white Tyvek suits tak­ing aim at the toxic rem­nants of the Camp Fire.

Burned gas sta­tions, melted cars and en­tire neigh­bor­hoods re­duced to scraps of heavy met­als, fiber­glass and as­bestos left a lethal film on the 240-square-mile area burned by the mas­sive fire. That will be the first or­der of busi­ness for the mop-up teams. Next will be the con­crete, steel and de­bris of nearly 14,000 charred homes.

The colos­sal ef­fort to clear Butte County of the rub­ble, and make way for re­cov­ery of the town of Par­adise and its neigh­bors, is ex­pected to last at least a year. The trucks and trains be­ing mo­bi­lized for the work are pre­pared to take out as much as 8 mil­lion tons of ma­te­rial — al­most four times what was re­moved from

last year’s North­ern Cal­i­for­nia fires.

In ad­di­tion to the sheer scope of the mis­sion, the chal­lenge for cleanup crews will be pre­vent­ing nox­ious de­bris from per­ma­nently scar­ring the re­gion’s air, soil and wa­ter.

“One may think that an in­di­vid­ual con­tainer of bleach is in­nocu­ous,” said Steve Calanog, an in­ci­dent com­man­der for the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. “But when you mul­ti­ply that con­tainer by the num­ber of homes de­stroyed, the vol­umes are ap­pre­cia­ble. We all have lots of things that, if they’re out in the en­vi­ron­ment, pose a risk.”

The EPA, one of many agen­cies in­volved in the joint state-fed­eral ef­fort that’s ex­pected to cost a few bil­lion dol­lars, had about 150 peo­ple on the ground this week, but that num­ber will grow as the re­moval of hazardous ma­te­ri­als picks up.

Vol­un­teers with the non­profit Friends of Butte Creek aren’t tak­ing chances on what might end up in the wa­ter­way at ground zero of the Camp Fire. In re­cent days, the group’s mem­bers have at­tempted to shield Butte Creek from the drainage of sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties, in­su­lat­ing it with about 3 miles of pro­tec­tive straw bales, known as wat­tles.

The creek is home to a resur­gent pop­u­la­tion of spring-run chi­nook sal­mon whose young re­cently hatched. Now, the inch-long fish are hav­ing to deal with the pesky runoff from re­cent storms. Fire-in­duced pol­lu­tants in the storm wa­ter threaten to taint the lar­vae of in­sects and crus­taceans that the sal­mon eat, and sed­i­ment flushed into the creek could top­ple gravel beds that the fish live on.

“What we’re con­cerned about are ash flows and de­bris flows and the toxic chem­i­cals com­ing off the homes,” said Allen Harthorn, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Friends of Butte Creek.

The pop­u­la­tion of sal­mon here has been stressed by low wa­ter flows in re­cent drought years, though Harthorn said he’s hope­ful the fish can weather the lat­est trial brought on by fire.

“When their num­bers get down, it gets harder for them to suc­cess­fully spawn and re­pro­duce,” Harthorn said. “But the fish seem to be very re­silient and they’re able to re­bound very suc­cess­fully.”

Sci­en­tists have be­gun run­ning tests on Butte Creek and other wa­ter­ways to look for con­tam­i­nants. They’re also test­ing soil. The re­sults are pend­ing.

The Feather River, which pro­vides wa­ter to the State Wa­ter Pro­ject and sits on the east­ern edge of the Camp Fire’s perime­ter, is be­lieved to have been af­fected much less by the burn.

“We know a lot of chem­i­cals ex­ited Par­adise. We just don’t know what hap­pened to them and where they are in the wa­ter­shed,” said Jack­son Web­ster, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of civil en­gi­neer­ing at Chico State Univer­sity, who is among those do­ing the sam­pling.

Cleanup of­fi­cials are also keep­ing an eye on how po­ten­tially dam­aged sep­tic sys­tems in Par­adise could harm the land­scape. The town of 27,000 is one of the largest in Cal­i­for­nia with­out a cen­tral­ized sewer sys­tem.

The Camp Fire, which ig­nited Nov. 8, vir­tu­ally wiped out Par­adise as it tore from the moun­tain com­mu­nity of Pulga to the Chico city lim­its. The 153,336-acre blaze was con­tained Nov. 25.

At least 85 peo­ple died and an es­ti­mated 18,793 struc­tures burned. The fire is the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

Calanog, with the EPA, said his hazardous-ma­te­ri­als crews learned a lot from their work in Sonoma and Napa coun­ties af­ter last year’s Wine Coun­try dev­as­ta­tion.

“It’s both sim­i­lar and very dif­fer­ent here,” he said.

The de­bris they’ve started clear­ing is vir­tu­ally the same. But there’s a lot more of it and it’s harder to trans­port from the more ru­ral Par­adise area, which is ac­ces­si­ble only by nar­row, two-lane roads.

Once the toxic ma­te­rial is dis­posed of, the large-scale re­moval of build­ings will be­gin.

The Gover­nor’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices, which is over­see­ing the cleanup, ex­pects both trucks and trains to be op­er­at­ing in earnest by the sec­ond week of Jan­uary. Rail ser­vice from Chico will al­low crews to get more de­bris out and move it to more waste fa­cil­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the agency.

“We’re us­ing any el­i­gi­ble land­fill in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, but we may have to go far­ther than that,” said of­fice spokesman Brad Alexan­der.

The cleanup, which ul­ti­mately will in­volve thou­sands of gov­ern­ment work­ers and pri­vate con­trac­tors, is ex­pected to cost much more than the $1.3 bil­lion spent on de­bris re­moval from last year’s North­ern Cal­i­for­nia fires.

The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency will pick up 75 per­cent of the tab, of­fi­cials say, while the state will cover the rest.

Res­i­den­tial prop­erty owners do not have to con­trib­ute, un­less their in­sur­ance com­pany pro­vides re­im­burse­ment for the ex­ca­va­tion. Com­mer­cial busi­nesses are re­spon­si­ble for clean­ing up their own parcels.

Re­build­ing can’t be­gin un­til the state signs off on the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the prop­erty. In some places, this might be a mat­ter of months, in oth­ers it could be longer. State of­fi­cials have not said which ar­eas will be cleared first.

“It’s go­ing to take about a year to do the bulk of the work,” Alexan­der said.

Pho­tos by Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

Above: Propane tanks that were gath­ered by cleanup crews are set aside for re­moval as part of the huge un­der­tak­ing.

Top: EPA con­trac­tors clean­ing toxic ma­te­ri­als carry propane tanks through a prop­erty de­stroyed by the Camp Fire.

John Blan­chard / The Chron­i­cle

Wild­fire cleanup Sources: Cal Fire, Chron­i­cle re­search

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