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EPA work progressing with hazardous waste cleanup at destroyed Sonoma County homes

Hundreds of fire-damaged metal tanks that once held propane or other chemicals await transportation to a proper disposal site at the EPA's Sonoma County staging area for household hazardous waste in Windsor, California, on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

Hundreds of fire-scorched 5-gallon propane tanks were piled Thursday at a Windsor industrial park, a collection point for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s removal of household hazardous waste in the wake of the North Bay wildfires.

More than 8,300 containers of hazardous waste have been picked up by EPA teams working on nearly 7,000 residential, commercial and public properties in Sonoma and Napa counties since the work started last week as the first phase of the government-funded post-fire cleanup.

“We’re working as fast as we can,” said Tom Dunkelman, EPA on-scene coordinator assigned to Sonoma County, during a media tour of the collection point in a sprawling industrial park on Pruitt Avenue just west of Highway 101.

The hazardous waste cleanup of 6,153 burned properties in Sonoma County was about one-third complete, with 2,121 sites cleared, according to an EPA website. Dozens of truckloads of waste leave the collection depot every day, Dunkelman said.

“What’s important to us is getting it out of here quickly,” said Steve Calanog, an EPA incident commander.

In Napa County, the agency has completed the waste removal on 266 out of 767 burned properties using a collection site in Yountville.

The hazardous waste is being trucked to permitted, specialized waste facilities, most located out of state, said Michele Huitric, an EPA spokeswoman. The only EPA-collected material staying in Sonoma County is scrap metal from tanks, which is going to local recycling facilities, she said.

The goal of the mandatory cleanup, done at no cost to property owners, is “protecting communities, human health and the environment,” Calanog said.

Twenty EPA teams were in the field Thursday, collecting hazardous waste in Fountaingrove, Larkfield-Wikiup, the Mark West area, Kenwood and Glen Ellen, Dunkelman said.

The hazardous waste removal was completed Tuesday in Coffey Park, where about 1,300 homes were incinerated in the most concentrated area of damage wrought by the Oct. 8 firestorm.

EPA has done fire cleanup work before, but “nothing of this magnitude,” Dunkelman said.

The fires, which destroyed 5,300 homes in Sonoma County by Cal Fire’s count, are considered the costliest in U.S. history.

Fire insurance claims from Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Napa and Solano counties total more than $3 billion to date, with more expected to come.

In Napa County, teams are working in the Silverado, Atlas Peak, Soda Canyon, Old Soda Springs Road, Mount Veeder Road, Redwood Road, Hardman Avenue, Vichy Springs Road and Monticello Road areas.

Hazardous waste collection is the first phase of the cleanup and must be completed on each site before Army Corps of Engineers contractors move in with heavy equipment to clear ash, debris and concrete foundations from burned home sites.

Property owners must sign a right-of-entry form before that government-funded work can be done.

The current deadline for returning those forms is Nov. 13.

Propane tanks of the size typically attached to outdoor grills, numbering in the thousands, are the most common form of hazardous waste collected so far, Dunkelman said.

The waste stream includes paints, solvents, automotive oil and batteries, degreasers, pesticides, fertilizers, rat poison, swimming pool chemicals and “a lot of ammunition,” Calanog said.

The list includes household products that “can catch fire, react or explode under certain circumstances, or that are corrosive or toxic,” according to an EPA website on the wildfire cleanup.

Most of the waste has been found in garages, sheds and backyards, officials said.

Burned vehicles are not collected.

When the cleanup is complete, the EPA posts a sign on the property, officials said.

The progress of the cleanup in Sonoma and Napa counties can be tracked on a map updated daily at www.epa.gov/norcalfireresponse.

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