In the aftermath of the devastating Lahaina fire, EPA workers have been diligently working to remove hazardous materials from the burned area. Since August 29th, the US Environmental Protection Agency has been focused on removing large pieces of asbestos and other hazardous materials from the 5-square-mile burned area. With the help of a trained team, including local hires who received hazmat tech certifications, the EPA has been able to identify and properly dispose of various hazardous items, including propane cylinders, batteries, and power walls. This ongoing hazardous material cleanup is expected to last for months, but once completed, residents and business owners will be allowed to return to their properties.

EPA workers finding many batteries during  hazardous material cleanup of Lahaina burned area

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1. Background and Introduction

In August 2023, the Lahaina fire wreaked havoc on a 5-square-mile area, resulting in the destruction of over 2,200 homes, businesses, multi-unit dwellings, and structures. The aftermath of the fire left behind hazardous materials that needed to be addressed. To tackle this issue, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated a hazardous material cleanup process, which has been ongoing since August 29th.

The cleanup operation began in Kula, where the EPA had the opportunity to refine their operational plans, train their teams, and learn how to approach the cleanup process correctly. This initial phase served as valuable training for the larger-scale cleanup efforts in Lahaina.

Since the start of the cleanup, approximately 150 individuals have been involved, with 30% of the workforce consisting of local hires who received hazmat tech certifications from the EPA. The goal is to bring together different expertise, such as individuals skilled in tracking, to ensure a comprehensive and effective cleanup process.

EPA workers finding many batteries during  hazardous material cleanup of Lahaina burned area

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2. Hazardous Material Cleanup Process

2.1 Permission and Scope of Work

During the hazardous material removal phase, property owners do not need to provide permission for the cleanup to take place. The work is conducted under state emergency orders, allowing the EPA to carry out the necessary cleanup measures. It is important to note that only hazardous materials are being removed, and personal items will not be taken.

2.2 Identification of Hazardous Material

A key aspect of the cleanup process is the identification of hazardous materials. The EPA teams utilize various tools and techniques to identify potential hazards, including monitoring for hazardous vapors, radiation, and conducting thorough property screenings. Hazardous items that are discovered, such as propane cylinders, batteries, and power walls, are safely removed and properly packaged for disposal.

2.3 Removal of Hazardous Material

Once hazardous materials are identified, the EPA crews work diligently to remove them. The most common hazardous items found during the cleanup include propane cylinders, batteries in golf carts and vehicles, lithium batteries, and power walls. Special precautions are taken when handling electrical hazards, and any suspected asbestos materials are marked for further evaluation.

2.4 Cultural Preservation

To ensure cultural preservation, embedded local monitors assist the cleanup crews in identifying any items of cultural significance. These monitors provide valuable insights and help prevent the inadvertent removal of culturally important artifacts or structures.

2.5 Crew Backup and Freshness

To maintain the efficiency and effectiveness of the cleanup efforts, backup crews from other regions have been called in to support the ongoing work. This approach helps ensure that the teams remain fresh and capable of carrying out the hazardous material removal process over an extended period.

EPA workers finding many batteries during  hazardous material cleanup of Lahaina burned area

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3. Findings During the Cleanup

3.1 Propane Cylinders

Propane cylinders have been a prevalent item found during the cleanup process. While many of these cylinders no longer contain propane due to the fire, they still pose a potential hazard if not handled properly. The EPA teams prioritize the safe removal and disposal of these cylinders to mitigate any risks they may pose.

3.2 Batteries in Golf Carts and Vehicles

The cleanup crews have encountered a significant number of batteries in golf carts and vehicles. These batteries, if not properly managed, can release hazardous materials and pose environmental risks. The EPA ensures their safe removal and disposal to prevent any potential harm.

3.3 Lithium Batteries and Power Walls

Lithium batteries and power walls, which are battery storage systems, have also been discovered during the cleanup process. Given their potential for hazardous material leakage, proper handling and disposal are essential to minimize any adverse environmental impacts.

3.4 Electrical and Other Hazards

In addition to batteries, the cleanup teams have identified various electrical and other hazards. These hazards include damaged trees that may not be stable, as well as other non-electrical hazards marked with an orange X. The crews exercise caution and employ safety measures to address these hazards during the cleanup process.

EPA workers finding many batteries during  hazardous material cleanup of Lahaina burned area

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4. Timeline and Future Plans

4.1 Expected Duration of Cleanup

The hazardous material removal phase of the debris cleanup is anticipated to last for several months. Due to the scale of the Lahaina fire’s aftermath, it is essential to allocate sufficient time to ensure a thorough and comprehensive cleanup.

4.2 Property Access and Return

Once the hazardous material removal is complete and safety assessments are conducted on the remaining standing structures, property owners will be allowed to return to their properties. The EPA intends to carry out the cleanup work in sections, minimizing the wait time for individuals to regain access to their properties.

4.3 Handling of Firearms and Suspected Remains

If functional firearms or suspected remains are discovered during the cleanup, the EPA will immediately halt the work and contact the Maui Police Department for further assistance. Safety and proper handling are prioritized throughout the entire process.

4.4 Preventing Environmental Damage

To prevent additional environmental damage, the EPA may use a non-toxic and marine-safe adhesive called “Soiltac” to address ash on some properties. This adhesive, which dries clear, helps prevent ash from blowing into the ocean and causing further harm to the environment.

4.5 Air Monitoring for Dust Particles

To ensure the safety of the cleanup crews and the surrounding community, the EPA monitors the air for fine particles of dust, known as “particulate matter.” This monitoring helps assess air quality and allows for prompt action if any concerning levels are detected.

In conclusion, the hazardous material cleanup process in the aftermath of the Lahaina fire is an ongoing operation led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With a focus on identifying and removing hazardous materials, the cleanup teams work diligently to protect the environment and the community. Through careful planning, collaboration, and monitoring, the cleanup efforts aim to restore the affected areas and allow property owners to return safely.

EPA workers finding many batteries during  hazardous material cleanup of Lahaina burned area

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