EPA Begins Arduous Task Removing Toxic Materials From Areas Devastated by Wildfires in Maui
EPA Begins Arduous Task Removing Toxic Materials From Areas Devastated by Wildfires in Maui

By Allan Stein

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun a phased cleanup of toxic materials from areas impacted by Maui’s wildfires.

At the request of the state of Hawaii and Maui County, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assigned the EPA to oversee the cleanup as the island community struggles to rebound.

“We do not currently have a cost estimate for this part of the community recovery process, and once the hazardous materials are removed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will lead the removal of fire debris,” according to a FEMA spokesman in an email to The Epoch Times.

“The goal of these efforts is to return clean, tested lots or properties to owners that are safe for rebuilding.”

On Aug. 23, EPA teams began removing toxic materials from the disaster areas as part of the agency’s Maui Wildfire Recovery plan.

During the project, EPA teams will survey, remove, and dispose of materials deemed hazardous to human health and safety. These include paints, cleaners, solvent chemicals, oils, batteries, and pesticides.

“Ash and debris can contain potentially harmful contaminants like asbestos, lead and arsenic that can be inhaled or enter the environment with wind,” according to an EPA fact sheet outlining the process.

Special Precautions

The EPA said it will remove asbestos and inspect pressurized fuel cylinders like propane tanks that require special handling, “especially if their containers are damaged.”

The agency said it would dispose of all hazardous chemicals at a safe facility off the island.

On Aug. 10, Hawaii officials gave the EPA authority to access properties without permission from the property owner.

However, the agency said it will only remove materials with the owner’s consent.

“These efforts will reduce potential threats to public health and safety and allow other agencies to remove solid waste, debris, and ash in the affected areas,” Maui County said in a press release.

A sign made with spray paint seeks to inspire motorists on Route 30 heading into the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina, Maui, on Aug. 16, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

As remedial work continues, the EPA will apply a chemical adhesive called Soiltac to prevent potentially toxic ash and dust from becoming airborne and infiltrating water supplies.

Soiltac is manufactured by Soilworks and approved by the state for commercial use, as it is both non-toxic and breaks down in the environment over time.

The product has a pinkish hue and contains a copolymer of vinyl acetate, ethylene, vinyl ester, mineral fillers, and protective colloid.

“The level of protection and types of controls necessary will vary depending upon potential exposure conditions,” according to Soilworks.

“Select controls are based on a risk assessment of local circumstances. Appropriate measures include adequate ventilation to control airborne concentrations. Where material is heated, sprayed or mist formed, there is greater potential for airborne concentrations to be generated.”

In a product description, Soilworks said the advantage of Soiltac is its long, molecular structure.

“This structure links and cross-links together, allowing stronger bonds to be obtained. After Soiltac is applied and the water disperses from the soil or aggregate, a durable and water-resistant matrix of flexible solid-mass is created.

“Once cured, Soiltac becomes completely transparent, leaving the natural landscape to appear untouched.”

Damage Estimated in the Billions

Federal officials estimate the total damage from the Lahaina, Kula, and Olinda wildfires at $5.5 billion.

The Lahaina fire on Aug. 8 was the most destructive, with 115 known fatalities and hundreds missing, including many children.

Federal officials consider the Lahaina fire the worst natural disaster in U.S. history since 1900. The fire destroyed more than 2,000 acres and an equivalent number of buildings, 86 percent of which were residential property.

Burned-out cars sit after a wildfire raged through Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 9, 2023. (Tiffany Kidder Winn via AP)

Maui County officials said although the fire is 100 percent contained, it is not completely extinguished.

“The county will champion the interest of our community, with safety, cultural, and community priorities,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said during an Aug. 29 Wailuku press conference with state and federal officials announcing the general cleanup.

“No one in our state has ever experienced the magnitude of this disaster and the degree of tragedy. Therefore, as we move throughout, coordination with all county, state, and federal agencies is occurring daily with my team.”

EPA incident commander Steve Calanog said the cleanup recognizes Lahaina’s cultural significance.

“We have a team on the island now of about 150 people, 30 percent of which are local hires who we’ve trained in hazmat tech certifications.”

“We know the long, rich, and historic cultural significance of Lahaina,” he said at the press conference. “We have 25 cultural observers on our team to ensure that we proceed with respect.”

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