EPA Begins Maui Cleanup as Searches Continue
On Tuesday (Aug. 29), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began work to remove and dispose of hazardous materials from properties affected by the wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii.
These materials reportedly include paints, cleaners, solvents, oils, batteries and pesticides. The work is expected to take up to several months to complete.
According to the EPA’s press release, following a fire, hazardous materials require special handling and disposal, especially if their containers are damaged. These efforts are anticipated to reduce potential threats to public health and safety and allow other agencies to remove debris and ash in the affected areas.
On Aug. 8, a massive blaze destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina, on Maui, resulting in catastrophic damage and loss of life. The Lahaina wildfire was one of four blazes that broke out on Maui, scorching a combined 5.7 square miles. Three of the four fires were still burning as of Aug. 17.
Officials stated that two of the fires had originally been referred to as a single blaze, the Upcountry/Kula fire. However, Maui County officials said on Aug. 17 that they were determined to be two fires with “distinct origins,” and they would be reported separately as the Olinda and Kula fires.
Those two fires broke out on the eastern side of the island and reportedly destroyed 19 homes. The land surrounding the fires in the Upcountry region also reportedly made extinguishing the flames difficult, and firefighters battling those two blazes were still dealing with “hot spots in gulches, forests and other hard-to-reach places,” officials said.
Another struggle after the Maui fires: keeping toxic runoff out of the ocean https://t.co/X3KRyOGjpr— WPSU (@WPSU) August 29, 2023
According to a report from CBS News at the time, the fires had killed over 100 people and forced thousands to evacuate. Reports state that they were fueled by a mix of land and atmospheric conditions that can create “fire weather.”
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green stated after the fires broke out that there was "very little left" of Lahaina, where more than 2,700 structures had been destroyed in what is now being called the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Green said he expected the death toll to keep climbing.
The report states that the Olinda Fire has scorched 1.69 square miles and was 85% contained as of Aug. 17, while the Kula Fire burned about one-third of a square mile and was 80% contained.
The Lahaina fire, which has burned 3.39 square miles, was 89% contained on Aug. 17, with officials reporting “no active threats at this time.”
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration announced $3 million in funding through quick release Emergency Relief funds to help combat costs associated with infrastructure repairs that are needed after the damage caused by the wildfires.
Material Removal, Latest News
Phase 1 of material removal, led by the EPA, will include household materials and fuel from pressurized cylinders and tanks. However, Phase 2 will be carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and will include debris removal, with some empty containers of fuel marked for debris removal work by the EPA.
According to the agency, workers will also remove items thought to contain asbestos if they are easy to identify, but the property will not be fully cleared of asbestos until debris removal begins.
For the work, the EPA will have an electrician on-site to advise field teams on safely de-energizing and removing home “powerbank” batteries. Additionally, the EPA will monitor the air for fine particles of dust, or particulate matter, in areas of removal.
After household hazardous materials are removed, the EPA plans mist a fine adhesive called “Soiltac” on ash on the property to prevent ash from blowing off the property and limit runoff. The adhesive, which dries clear, is reportedly non-toxic, biodegradable and approved by state and county.
The EPA notes that it is making every effort to approach this work with the utmost respect and reverence for native Hawaiian cultural items. As part of this effort, the EPA has provided hazardous material health and safety training to over 20 cultural monitors from the Maui community.
“It takes about six months to a year to clear the debris from an event this size,” a FEMA representative told reporters at a press conference in Maui. “So this will take some time. It has to be done appropriately, safely, culturally, respectfully, in a dignified way.”
State and federal agencies are also reportedly installing barriers to catch debris, in addition to placing monitoring equipment in the ocean. Weather could potentially cause soot and debris to pour into storm drains, which empty into the ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard is also putting absorbent booms in the ocean around the stormwater outlets, which capture oil.
“We’re hoping to restrict any oil or hazardous material from entering into the water,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Trenton Brown. “Unfortunately I don't think we'll be able to stop it all, but we'll do our best.”
To assess what contaminants do reach the reef, Hawaii state agencies are working with the U.S. Geological Survey to place monitoring equipment in the water. A sediment trap will collect larger particles for analysis, while special membranes absorb contaminants from the water itself.
As cleanup begins, officials also told reporters earlier this week that the search on land for more victims of the fires is complete, while crews move into the water to potentially find any remaining victims. As of this week, 388 individuals are unaccounted for; 115 people were declared dead from the fire, of which 45 have been identified.
Maui County officials said as of Aug. 28 that the Lahaina fire remains 90% contained, affecting an estimated 2,170 acres. The Olinda fire, affecting an estimated 1,081 acres, is 85% contained, while the Kula fire is 90% contained, affecting an estimated 202 acres. The Maui Fire Department states that though efforts continue to completely extinguish the fires, there are no active threats among them.