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U.S. EPA to oversee toxics cleanup after fires in Sonoma and Napa counties

Jessica Henry, left, and Kristina Hank, look for valuables in Henry's mothers home, Monday Oct. 16, 2017 in Larkfield. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

GUY KOVNER,

Federal and state agencies are already planning post-fire cleanup in seven Northern California counties, including Sonoma, outlining long-term efforts likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars but performed at no expense to residential property owners, officials said Tuesday.

In Sonoma and Napa counties, where more than 100,000 acres have burned, the chore looms so large the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will manage the first phase, which involves removal of toxic materials from thousands of fire-scorched properties.

That includes batteries, paint, solvents, flammable liquids, electronic waste and any materials that contain asbestos.

“We know people are already back at their homes, wondering what to do next,” said Lance Klug, a spokesman for California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle. The agency typically handles the second phase, involving the removal of non-toxic waste — scraping away ash, concrete, metal and contaminated soil — in fire-affected counties, but CalRecycle’s role in the North Bay cleanup has not been determined, said Klug.

Details on the sprawling two-part cleanup are forthcoming and will be widely publicized, he said.

When that work is completed, homeowners will receive a certificate indicating their property has been cleaned and is eligible for local building permits, he said.

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The state will bill insurance companies for cleanup costs, but homeowners, insured or not, will pay nothing. The first-phase toxics cleanup in Mendocino and Lake counties, as well as Yuba, Nevada and Butte counties will be handled by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, said Abbott Dutton, a spokeswoman for the state agency.

Exactly how the two-phase cleanup will proceed has not yet been determined as it involves collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, California Office of Emergency Services, Cal Fire and local agencies, Klug said.

No cleanup work will start until sites have been declared safe and secure, officials said.

Homeowners have the option of hiring qualified private contractors to clear their land, but Klug warned against people trying to do the work themselves.

Sifting or shoveling settled ashes makes them airborne again, possibly exposing people to dangerous materials, including carcinogens, he said.

Property owners are advised not to initiate significant cleanup on their land owing to the health hazards and the potential exclusion of their property from any government-funded cleanup program, Klug said.

In addition, burned material may not be placed in trash cans or hauled to a conventional landfill, he said.

Unauthorized removal of debris and ash “may jeopardize the ability of property owners to obtain financial assistance from FEMA,” according to a press release jointly issued Tuesday by Cal Fire, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa.

The county, city and CalOES plan to hold town hall meetings later this week to provide information about the cleanup process, the release said.

There is no timetable for starting or completing the cleanup work, Klug said.

Damage from the North Bay fires, which have destroyed about 6,700 structures in Sonoma County alone, is “either unprecedented or close to it” among California wildfires, he said.

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In the wake of the massive 2015 Valley fire in Lake County, CalRecycle managed the removal of more than 245,000 tons of material while cleaning about 1,400 properties at a cost of about $100 million.

Klug declined to estimate the cost of cleaning up after the latest Northern California fires.

The government typically does not pay for cleanup of commercial property, based on the assumption the owners have adequate insurance, he said. But when debris on commercial sites poses a threat to public health or the environment, it can be removed at public expense.

Free removal of toxics is limited to residential properties, Dutton said.

Federal, state and local officials began meeting last week to plan the cleanup and recovery effort on a parallel track with firefighting, state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said.

“This is most likely the largest cleanup in California history, which means all hands on deck,” he said.

A lesson from the Valley fire, McGuire said, is “all of us are going to have to have patience and work together to insure the cleanup’s success.”

The cleanup, he said, is “the foundation of a successful rebuild of the community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.