State’s effort to clean up after Camp Fire is off to a rocky start
California’s cleanup of the Camp Fire, the largest post-disaster project of its kind in state history, is only weeks old. But already, questions and concerns are piling up.
An engineering firm with a subsidiary unit that was caught falsifying soil tests during the cleanup of a former shipyard in San Francisco has been awarded one of the first contracts for the Camp Fire project, prompting a call by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, for a federal review of that company’s numerous government contracts.
Continuing his war on the state’s forest management practices, President Trump tweeted a threat last week that he may withhold federal emergency funds to California, which are expected to cover 75 percent of the cleanup costs.
Butte County residents are upset about where the state plans to truck the debris, some of which is toxic.
And so far, only about one third of the eligible burned-out property owners in the hills around Paradise have agreed to be part of the government-run cleanup, prompting con-
cerned Butte County leaders to schedule a press conference Thursday urging residents to sign up before a looming end-ofJanuary deadline.
Still, state disaster relief leaders say they are optimistic one month into what is expected to be a one-year-long effort. The $3.5 billion operation will be by far the most extensive post-disaster cleanup the state has dealt with.
Seasoned federal disaster experts acknowledge they are embarking on something unprecedented.
FAKED SOIL TESTS
The effort has begun amid uncertainty and potential legal conflict.
Tetra Tech Inc., the firm hired by state officials to test potentially contaminated soils on burned homesteads, is parent company to Tetra Tech EC, which has been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for faking soil samples during a cleanup project in San Francisco’s former Hunters Point naval shipyard. Two company executives plead guilty last year and were sentenced to prison.
Pelosi, whose district includes Hunters Point, expressed dismay at the contract award. Pelosi has asked for a federal review of Tetra Tech’s federal contracts and its performance.
“We are concerned that Tetra Tech continues to receive contracts amidst ongoing Department of Justice whistleblower lawsuits into their fraudulent work at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard,” Pelosi spokeswoman Taylor Griffin said. “Wildfire victims of California must have confidence that recovery efforts are accurate, trustworthy and safe.”
Speaking to The Sacramento Bee last week, a Tetra Tech spokesman, Sam Singer, called the two employees involved in the San Francisco scandal “rogue,” and said the company stepped in and corrected problems.
A company competing for the Butte County contract, Arcadis, has challenged the state’s $250 million contract award to Tetra Tech on a bidding technicality. State officials, however, have given Tetra Tech the go-ahead to get to work and say the protest is unlikely to slow the process.
“In previous wildfire debris removal operations, Tetra Tech has proven to be a reliable debris management contractor, meeting CalRecycle’s high standards for health and safety, performance, and operational accountability,” spokesman Lance Klug said in an email to The Bee.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, who represents the fireburn area, said he has concerns not only about Tetra Tech’s work, but also about the entire project, including the new auditing process and the number of trucks that will be on the road in the area.
Funding for the cleanup is also a concern. On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted that he’d ordered FEMA not to send any more wildfire-related funds to California, unless the state gets its “act together” on forest management to prevent fires.
FEMA press officials were not available for comment last week.
A HISTORIC CLEANUP
The cleanup will represent the sternest test yet of the state’s ability to respond quickly to get displaced residents back on their land, and will likely try the patience of Butte County residents who will have to deal with hundreds of debris-filled trucks making thousands of daily trips on local roads en route to landfills and recycling centers.
Mark Ghilarducci, head of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, said he believes the task is bigger than the cleanup after the epic 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, and easily more costly and timeconsuming than other recent Northern California fires that swept into neighborhoods of Santa Rosa and Redding.
At an estimated $3.5 billion, the Camp Fire work is far bigger than the just-finishing cleanup of last summer’s Carr Fire, which destroyed 1,000plus structures, including entire blocks of homes in Redding. The budget for that project was an estimated $133 million. The handful of fires that swept through Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties in 2017 are expected to cost less than $1 billion combined.
The scene in the Butte County hills will resemble a military operation. Contractors and state agencies will set up “base camps” to house workers – with mess halls, showers and laundry facilities – so workers from around the state and possibly from outside California don’t compete for limited housing with local residents.
Six days a week, crews will load debris into truck beds, where it will be “burrito wrapped” in plastic sheets to keep toxic ashes from flying out during transit. Officials estimate an average of 350 tons of debris will be removed from each property. That includes house foundations and contaminated soil underneath.
The state won’t touch swimming pools.
AWAY FROM PARADISE
In order to have their property cleaned at government expense, residents have to sign a “right-ofentry” form, essentially giving the government the OK to come onto their property to clear contaminants. State officials have counted 14,700 properties that need to be cleaned. But as of last week, less than one-third of eligible property owners had opted in. Butte County has set a Jan. 31 deadline to sign up.
Property owners who do not sign up for the government’s help will be required to hire their own debris removal companies and seek reimbursement from their insurance companies. If they fail to clean their properties, Butte County ultimately will declare their land a nuisance.
One notation in the right-of-entry document has alarmed some residents. By signing up, owners cede control of their property for up to three years. Eric Lamoureux of the state Office of Emergency Services said last week officials do not intend to control properties that long.
CAMP FIRE DEBRIS
The project may lead to congestion as platoons of trucks carrying ash, dirt and other debris roll up and down the same narrow foothill roads that proved to be too small to handle the mass evacuation when the Camp Fire broke out on Nov. 8. One contractor predicted those roads will take a 10-year beating in one year, requiring an expensive rehab when the project is done.
Some of the debris, perhaps one-fifth, will be recycled.
The recycling plan has been controversial. Some Chico residents recently balked at a proposed recycling location in their city. State officials have been looking at doing the recycling in Oroville, but are also considering shipping it to various recycling centers around Northern California.
Most of the debris, though, is contaminated and will be buried in landfills. The state has identified three sites as most likely dumping grounds: the Neal Road Landfill near Paradise, the Ostrom Road Landfill near Wheatland and the Anderson Landfill near Red Bluff.
Workers search for victims of the Camp Fire at the Skyway Villa Mobile Home Park in Paradise on Nov. 12 after the fire burned many homes in the area.
The remains of vehicles on Pearson Road on Nov. 9. At least five people were killed in cars while trying to flee flames as the Camp Fire devastated Paradise.