While North Bay residents are eager to start removing debris and ash from their properties, they must leave it untouched until a two-part federal and state program is completed, according to health officials in fire-ravaged counties. If not, they could be barred from rebuilding and left with a big cleanup bill.
“The improper handling of fire-related debris — by shoveling, sifting, sweeping or using leaf blowers to clear material and ash — is a serious issue,” said Christine Sosko, director of environmental health in the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. “The air can become filled with contaminated particles that can endanger the health of area residents and the environment.”
These debris-removal requirements have been in place for a number of years, according to David Morrison, director of Napa County Planning, Building and Environmental Services
“Most recently, these rules were applied during the 2015 Valley fire in Lake County and are applicable to all counties burned by recent wildfires,” he said.
But as different state and federal agencies are brought in to the North Bay to deal with a regional disaster of this magnitude, the rules need to be consistently applied, Morrison said.
“In brief, we strongly discourage owners from removing ash or other waste from a burned property until all household and/or other hazardous waste is removed, as well as until other requirements are followed for nonhazardous debris removal,” he said. “By not following local and State requirements, property owners may not be able to get clearance for permits that will allow them to rebuild.”
HAZARDOUS WASTE REMOVAL
The overall debris removal program has two parts. Phase 1 involves property inspections, soil-sample lab tests and the removal of hazardous waste by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If hazardous waste is discovered, it will be removed by the EPA at no cost to property owners.
Hazardous waste will be classified and taken to the appropriate debris-handling facility that is approved and permitted to handle the disposal.
However, if property owners perform any remediation of hazardous waste themselves, they may be ineligible to participate in this portion of the debris-removal program and will have to assume such costs on their own.
NONHAZARDOUS WASTE REMOVAL
Phase 2 involves the removal of nonhazardous debris by the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), which offers two options to property owners.
Option 1: This subsidized program managed by CalOES will cost property owners minimal expense (6.25 percent of the waste-removal cost), and homeowner insurance coverage for wildfire-generated debris may also be applied.
Option 2: Property owners may elect to submit their own debris-removal plan, which must meet county requirements and CalOES standards. Property owners must also obtain a qualified consultant who will prepare an application for review and approval by the county. Upon approval, property owners will secure a demolition permit to begin work. Private work completed under an approved plan will be at the owner’s expense, and there will be no subsidy through CalOES.
Details describing what information must be contained in these work plans and how — and where they should be submitted — will be released next week.
DEBRIS EVALUATION STARTS NEXT WEEK
Because of the declared public health emergency, the EPA will begin a property-by-property mandatory inspection for the removal of hazardous debris at sites damaged by wildfires as soon as the week of Oct. 23.
Licensed professionals will take soil samples to determine whether hazardous waste is present. An EPA-certified testing laboratory must perform this analysis, in cooperation with the California Department of Toxic Substance Control.
RIGHT-OF-ENTRY PERMISSION NEEDED
Right-of-entry forms must be signed by property owners in Sonoma and Napa counties to enable EPA representatives to enter private property and take soil samples. In addition to signatures, these forms require the name of the property owner’s insurance company and policy number as a precondition before mandatory inspections and tests can be conducted.
Beginning next week, these forms will be available at the Sonoma County Department of Environmental Health, located at 625 Fifth St. in Santa Rosa (707-565-6565, SonomaCounty.ca.gov page on property re-entry). The office will be open to the public the week of Oct. 23 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and thereafter seven days a week for the next few weeks so residents can sign forms.
Also starting next week, Napa County residents can obtain right-of-entry forms from the Napa County Planning, Building and Environmental Services Department (707-253-4417, countyofnapa.org/pbes), located on the second floor of the county administration building, 1195 Third St.
Online access to these forms for Sonoma County residents will be provided soon, along with information packets containing the guidelines and requirements governing burn waste removal, according to Sosko. These packets will also be given to owners when permission is granted for them to physically re-enter their properties.
“If debris removal is not done correctly, it could also release a variety of toxic chemicals into the ground, resulting from the combustion of lead and heavy metals contained in computers, TVs, radios and other electronic equipment, along with asbestos, paint, plastics, gasoline, solvents, cleaning products and pesticides found in and around homes and industrial sites,” Sosko said.
DIY DISPOSAL, COMMERCIAL PROPERTIES
If property owners decide to go it alone, they should realize that not all county trash and garbage transfer stations and landfills are licensed to receive hazardous burn waste, officials said.
In addition, the state will not pick up the tab for owners of commercial property who require debris removal, but will perform the work at the owner’s expense.
Initial toxic waste cleanup activities in Mendocino, Lake, Yuba, Nevada and Butte counties will be conducted by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, according to Abbott Dutton, a spokeswoman with this state agency.
It should be noted that insurance companies may not be willing to settle housing claims and provide rebuilding funds if official certification has not been obtained to prove that toxic waste has been removed from a fire site, making the property eligible for both demolition and building permits.
“There is still work to be done in the weeks ahead to refine the guidelines and other procedures involved with the cleanup,” Sosko said.
North Bay counties are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, CalOES, the EPA and toxics-control state and county to further define existing policies and keep the public informed.