State’s ef­fort to clean up af­ter Camp Fire is off to a rocky start

The Modesto Bee - - Local - BY TONY BIZJAK tbiz­[email protected]

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.

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA [email protected]

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.

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA [email protected]

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.

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