EPA making quick work of wildfire hazardous waste cleanup

Hazardous waste cleanup teams from EPA are swiftly moving through burned-out homes and outbuildings throughout the Santiam Canyon (Oregon), clearing out potentially damaging materials that could slough into the Santiam River and its tributaries this winter, according to the Albany Democrat-Herald.

The Beachie Creek and Lionshead (Oregon) fires that swept through the canyon on Labor Day denuded thousands of acres of soil-holding trees, grass and brush, As of Thursday afternoon, crews had completed cleanup on 725 properties in Marion County. There were an additional 64 properties to which they had no access and 14 properties that still needed assessment.

Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker said he has been impressed with how quickly cleanup has gone.

“They have progressed much faster than I had expected,” Tucker said. “We were expecting this to take several weeks, but they have gotten so much done in just two weeks.”

Tucker said he is “looking forward to the next phase, which is removal of the ash and debris.”

EPA spokesperson Keith Glenn said review teams first check each site for items that may contain health hazards, such as radiation or filled propane tanks

“In terms of radiation, some folks may have hobbies that have products with it and it can be present in old smoke detectors,” Glenn said. “We also check for volatile organic compounds.”

Other household wastes eligible for EPA removal can include paints, cleaners, solvents, oils, batteries, herbicides, ammunition, etc.

Glenn said when each site is deemed safe, “they give a thumbs up to our cleanup teams.”

Glenn said that before any work can be completed, property owners must sign right of entry forms that allow workers on their properties.

Last week, Glenn, from EPA Region 2 in New Jersey, was working with fellow EPA experts Eric Vanderboom from Boise, Idaho, who is based in Region 10, and Mike Nalipinski, Region 1, who lives in Salem, Massachusetts.

Nalipinski most recently oversaw cleanup in the Medford area and expects to move into Clackamas and Lincoln counties next.

Glenn said all propane tanks are checked and valves removed. Once cleared, they are marked with a large “X” to indicate they are safe to be around.

Glenn said some families have insurance to cover the cost of cleanup, but this service was offered free to all property owners.

“We provide highly trained personnel who know how to do this,” Glenn said. “Our goal is to do this right the first time.”

Vanderboom said that depending on how many damaged properties are within a given area, cleanup can proceed rapidly.

“If we have several houses next to each other, it might only take an hour or so per site,” Vanderboom said. “We might get from four to six or seven sites done per day per team.”

Groundwork was being done by employees from Weston Solutions, which has an office in Portland. Weston staff take pre- and post-cleaning photos for state and county records.

Each team is composed of four people.

Excavator operators quickly piled up charred metal and ash within the foundations of destroyed homes so they could quickly and easily be gathered up to be hauled away.

They also cleared yards and then covered the open soil with Oregon-grown straw.

Long, sausage-like “wattles” were then placed to absorb water runoff from the properties that might cause erosion.

The goal is to stabilize soils and reduce the potential of ash and other debris from entering the river and threatening riparian species as well as the drinking water for communities such as Salem.

Once cleared, an 8½-by-11-inch laminated sign is posted on the property.

Vanderboom said there are 210 EPA on-scene coordinators nationwide.

“Fire-damaged properties can have hidden dangers such as asbestos, ammunition, chemicals, compressed gas cylinders, and other household hazardous wastes,” said Randy Nattis, EPA incident commander for the Oregon wildfires.

“There can also be many physical and unknown risks that EPA’s trained experts, with the appropriate equipment and personal protective gear, can safely address. We recommend that property owners use this free service to prevent harm to themselves and the environment.”