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Post fire debris cleanup by government close to completion

  • A road sign on the shoulder of Stony Point Road warns motorists of trucks entering the roadway and possibly parking alongside the road. Robert Grant

By: Stephanie Derammelaere
February 23, 2018

Residents traveling down Stony Point Road in recent months have undoubtedly witnessed the long lines of trucks waiting to get into both the Central Landfill dump on Meacham Road as well as the Soiland Quarry on Stony Point Road to dump fire-related debris. The amount of dirt and dust this has caused on the roads and in the air has raised concerns by local residents regarding the toxicity of the debris, given the large amount of hazardous materials left in the wake of the North Bay fires. Fortunately, local, state and federal government agencies have worked together from the beginning to ensure the health and safety of the public and our environment. 

“We are concerned about any type of toxic material,” says Scott Alonso, Communications Manager with Sonoma County Department of Health Services. “We send out teams to do spot checks and make sure standards are met, especially with private contractors not affiliated with the army corps.”

The Sonoma County Consolidated Fire Debris Removal program has two phases; the first being the removal of household hazardous waste and the second the removal of other fire-related debris. In phase one, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspected properties and removed any household hazardous waste that may pose a threat to human health, animals and the environment such as batteries, asbestos siding, cleaners, solvents, oils and paints which often contain toxic ingredients. These products entailed special handling and disposal. Once those items were identified, they were taken to a temporary staging area before being disposed of at permitted waste facilities that can accommodate this kind of material. The facilities able to process this type of toxic debris reside outside of the county in more remote areas with additional safeguards and stringent environmental controls. Most of this work was completed by the end of 2017. 

“The central landfill operated by Republic Services has taken the bulk of the ash and unclassified waste,” says Mark Soiland, President and CEO of Soiland Co., Inc. which owns and operates the Stony Point Rock Quarry in Cotati, Soils Plus in Sonoma and Grab N’ Grow in Santa Rosa. “Once the EPA certified that lots were cleared and ready for general debris removal, nothing being hauled locally is toxic. The U.S. EPA went into every single lot before anyone was allowed to touch any properties and the EPA cleaned up anything that was toxic. The contractors had to be certified with Hazwoper training for public health in terms of dust control and airborne pollution and contaminates. The whole system is actually pretty well arranged between the federal government and the state.”

While phase one is required for all residential properties to mitigate health risks to the general public, phase two of the debris removal and property clean-up has a couple of options. Option one is the Sonoma County Consolidated Debris Removal program in which the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local officials coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct fire-related debris removal. This includes removal of all burnt debris, foundations, hazardous trees and some soil to ensure the sites are clean. Property owners can also opt to do their own private debris clean-up through a private contractor. However, private debris removal must still meet the standards set by local, state and federal agencies, including compliance with legal requirements for disposal, proper transportation and documentation of waste and erosion control.

“Over 90 percent of all the homeowners that lost properties opted into the government program because the government promised the public that they would cover anything that their private insurance carriers didn’t cover,” says Soiland. “So most people chose to have the government do the cleanup. Then the government hired three national environmental prime contractors and those prime contractors hired local contractors and haulers and local landfills and recyclers like myself. Two of our three sites are certified federally and we already have permission by the state of California and by the County of Sonoma to be recycling centers.”

The three national contractors retained by the government to oversee the job include ECC based in Burlingame, Ca. and Ashbritt based out of Florida and Ceres Environmental Services, based out of Minnesota. These companies specialize in rapid-response disaster recovery and special environmental services contracting. Most of this work is estimated to be complete within the next week. 

About 25 landfills across the state as far as Chico and Manteca are either accepting waste from the fires, or are in process to do so upon receiving permitting from the water board. Both the Soiland Quarry and the Central Landfill are currently working under an emergency waiver to accommodate debris from the fires, which allows their normal hours of operation to be suspended for fire clean up operations and eliminates any maximum daily threshold for debris.

“The amount of debris brought to the landfill varies day-to-day, but on one of their largest days so far they received over 17,000 tons of debris,” says Alonso. “The typical daily limit is 2,500 tons. They usually receive about 1,000 tons per day. We estimate that the waste generated from the fires taken to the Central Disposal Site will total 1 million tons. If that estimate holds true, that equates to about three years of tonnage going into the facility. However, due to the higher density of the material we could lose about 1.5 years of life based on the density of regular municipal waste.”

According to the emergency waiver, disaster related solid waste material types that may be accepted at the central disposal site include non-hazardous ash, dead animals and non-hazardous soil. Asbestos is not accepted at the central landfill. 

“Quite honestly, there’s really nothing to be concerned about with the landfill as far as toxics go,” says Soiland. “The landfills have protective liners and every night the landfill has to cover and protect each day’s refuse to protect the public from odors and any windborne or airborne pollution. For the most part it has really been orchestrated very well.”

The Soiland Quarry, which is taking concrete to be later crushed down into aggregate materials for use in construction projects such as new roadways, pipelines and buildings, has already taken in approximately 150,000 tons of concrete. Soiland estimates this to only be about 50 percent of the concrete taken from Santa Rosa city proper neighborhoods, since much of it is also going to C&S Waste Solutions, another recycler with a site in Windsor. 

“There’s definitely a public impact with all the trucks on the road,” says Soiland. “They’re working seven days a week and there have been some traffic impacts on Highway 116 in Cotati and on Stony Point Road. There have obviously been some impacts in Santa Rosa with some road closures. But in the grand scheme of things the amount of work that’s been performed in a short four-month time span is unbelievable. It’s amazing how much they’ve done.”