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By Timothy Hurley • Oct. 27, 2023
JAMM AQUINO / SEPT. 29
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it has removed hazardous waste from more than 1,300 burned parcels in Lahaina. Above, resident Peyton Chesson sifts through the rubble of his Lahaina home destroyed in the Aug. 8 wildfire.
The Phase 1 removal of hazardous materials from the burn zone in Lahaina is drawing closer to its conclusion.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it has removed hazardous waste from over 85% of the burned properties in Lahaina. That includes more than 1,300 parcels.
Yet to be completed are many of the disaster area’s apartment buildings, which hold lots of debris and are more difficult to work in, officials said.
The effort is part of the first phase of the overall federal cleanup in response to the August wildfires in Lahaina and Upcountry. The second phase, which will be overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will include the removal of all debris from the affected properties.
The cleanup follows the deadliest U.S. wildfire in the past 100 years. The Aug. 8 wildfire that swept across West Maui killed at least 99 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and other structures in the heart of Lahaina town.
Despite the pace of the first phase, an EPA spokesman said it isn’t expected to wrap up until sometime in December.
That’s because EPA’s post-fire mission was expanded to include support for transport, handling and disposal of large lithium ion batteries as well as the application of soil sealant.
“EPA efforts to identify, secure and remove hazardous waste — the key first step which must be taken to allow cleanup to proceed — remain on schedule,” spokesman Michael Brogan said.
The EPA has had as many as 200 personnel on the island working on the cleanup, and workers continue to remove items such as paints, cleaners, solvents, oils, batteries, herbicides and pesticides for disposal at a special facility off-island.
The workers, officials said, are removing only those hazardous materials that can be seen on the surface and can be safely handled, which means some difficult-to-get-to items will be left for the Army Corps to take care of in Phase 2.
In addition, EPA personnel continue to apply the soil stabilizer Soiltac® to the ash and debris around burned buildings and vehicles. The stabilizer is designed to trap toxic ash and debris in place, thus preventing it from getting into the air and spreading to nearby properties, waterways and the ocean.
Due to a risk of potential runoff into ocean waters, areas in close proximity to shorelines were prioritized for the stabilizer.
Officials said EPA teams applying Soiltac to properties first check for wildlife, animal feeders and plants. And cultural monitors make sure any historic structures and other areas known to have cultural artifacts or ancestral remains are not sprayed.
Officials said folks returning to their properties will see a thin, clear crust on the surface of sprayed materials, including the footprint of all structures and under the hood and interior of certain cars.
Despite some vocal skeptics in the community, the EPA insists that Soiltac, when dry, is nontoxic, safe and easily broken apart. But because the product is not considered biodegradable, all of the Soiltac will be removed and disposed of with the remaining ash and debris as part of Phase 2 of the cleanup
EPA officials said they’ve received a number of inquiries from people wanting to reenter apartment buildings. But, due to the ample amounts of debris and the difficulty of entering these properties, EPA personnel have yet to complete assessments of multifamily buildings, they said.
Residents with any questions about reentry should contact Maui County, officials said.
EPA teams are also working with Maui County to identify, recover, transport and dispose of lithium ion batteries from electric and hybrid vehicles.
Officials cautioned owners of electric and hybrid vehicles to not attempt to start, work on or sit in vehicles remaining in the disaster area. Fire- damaged electric and hybrid vehicle batteries need to be handled with special care to avoid a fire or other hazard.
Brogan said the safe removal and handling of lithium ion batteries scorched by the fire continues to be “an expensive challenge requiring novel approaches.”
Once removed from a car, the batteries will be treated and eventually crushed and recycled, according to the EPA’s plan.