In Sonoma County, EPA crews to start post-fire hazardous materials cleanup

GUY KOVNER |THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | October 24, 2017, 6:13PM

Read all of the PD’s fire coverage

Crews wearing bright white Tyvek protective suits will begin surveying burned home sites in Sonoma County for hazardous materials this morning, in the first stage of a post-fire cleanup that will last until early next year.

Four-member teams organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will eventually survey all of the estimated 6,700 homes reduced to ash this month by the Tubbs fire and other destructive blazes in the county.

Survey teams will be followed by EPA cleanup crews that will remove and properly dispose of hazardous household materials that remain, such as paint, pesticides, gasoline, propane containers and batteries, said Tom Dunkelman, a Reno-based EPA on-scene coordinator assigned to Sonoma County.

The free EPA toxics sweep is an essential first step in the cleanup process, preceding the debris removal managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But the toxics removal is separate from the cleanup that requires homeowners to sign a right-of-entry form to allow Army Corps crews to clear ash and debris, including concrete foundations.
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That form, which requires homeowners to assign to the county any insurance payments earmarked for debris removal, has generated questions and some controversy for people weighing the option of handling cleanup on their own.

“Our mission is to come out and remove hazardous waste ahead of the Army Corps of Engineers,” Dunkelman said.

“We just want to make sure we are protecting everyone’s safety,” said Sonoma County Health Officer Karen Milman.

Most homes and garages contain hazardous materials that are safe under ordinary conditions, but a rampant wildfire leaves behind concerns the substances may be leaking into the ground, she said.

“We don’t know exactly what’s there,” she said, without conducting a lot-by-lot inspection intended to protect residents as well as cleanup workers.

The toxic survey teams will consist of an EPA employee, a county employee and two contract workers hired by the federal agency, Dunkelman said.

The cleanup crews will begin collecting the hazardous material Monday, with at least 15 teams in the field, he said, and a goal of removing toxics from 250 homes a day as the survey teams continue their work as well.

Both jobs should be completed by Dec. 15, Dunkelman said. Debris removal efforts will continue into early next year, officials said.

For information on debris removal and related matters, go to

OSHA New Silica Rule

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the final rule in March 2016, following decades of debate on whether to approve tougher requirements on how much airborne silica workers can be exposed to without triggering debilitating lung illnesses.

OSHA expects the regulations to prevent 642 deaths annually and 918 moderate to severe silicosis cases. ( RIN:1218-AB70 ) The agency initially set June 23 as the compliance deadline for builders, but the Trump administration extended the deadline by three months.

For construction, the silica rule sets a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for airborne crystalline silica of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3), 80 percent less than the old construction limit of 250 μg/m3 set in 1971.

The 50 microgram limit also applies to general industry and maritime employers, but their compliance deadline comes later on June 23, 2018.

Equipment Solutions

Tool manufacturers are offering a range of new designs and attachments to limit the amount of silica-laden dust at construction sites.

Companies such as DeWalt, Milwaukee Tool and Bosch have responded with hand tools that have built-in vacuums, filters and collector boxes as well as kits that attach to tools. A common answer for hand-held tools used to drill or punch their way into concrete is to vacuum away the dust at the contact point, then contain the collected dust.

Buying gear to comply with the silica rule comes at the same time battery powered cordless tools are becoming more popular, DeWalt’s concrete product manager, Ricky Cacchiotti, told Bloomberg BNA.

DeWalt’s cordless rotary hammers have self-contained vacuums, including OSHA-mandated HEPA filters, Cacchiotti said. Workers don’t have to connect a hose to an industrial vacuum on the floor.

If a contractor prefers to upgrade existing gear, Milwaukee Tool offers an attachable kit that fits on its tools as well as other manufacturers’ equipment, according to Kevin Gee, the company’s product manager.

To take advantage of built-in vacuum systems, Bosch has designed a hollow drill bit that allows dust to be sucked through the bit into a containment box, Bohn said.For when large quantities of dust are being produced such as grinding a floor surface, a rolling vacuum system may be a better option, Gee said.

Unlike a typical industrial vacuum that loses effectiveness as its filter becomes clogged with dust, dust extractors maintain a constant airflow by automatically cleaning the extractor’s HEPA filter, Gee said.

Are Contractors Ready?

Just how prepared contractors are may depend on the builder’s size. Large general contractors, like Balfour Beatty, were poised to comply soon after the rule’s March 2016 release, while small subcontractors may be waiting to see how OSHA enforces the rule before purchasing new equipment.

A key to the early efforts at Balfour Beatty was a train-the-trainer program and classes that even some administrative staff attended, Smithgall said. Altogether, about 3,000 employees were involved.

Instruction also extended to many of Balfour Beatty’s prime subcontractors, which are also expected to comply with the rule.

Employees understood what changes to work practices and tools were needed to comply, Smithgall said. The topics that most-often prompted questions regarded medical and recordkeeping mandates such as the rule’s requirement for offering workers medical tests and fit-tested respirators.

Balfour Beatty worksites are already complying with the rule, Smithgall said. In addition to limiting exposure to silica from concrete drilling, cutting, and grinding, workers are taking steps to limit silica exposure from building demolitions and sandy construction zones.For one demolition site workers used three water hoses to suppress dust, Smithgall said. At a different outdoor site, workers operating heavy equipment sat inside an enclosed driver’s compartment breathing filtered air.

At Associated General Contractors—an industry organization—there are questions on how OSHA expects contractors to meet the standard, Kevin Cannon, the group’s senior director of safety and health services, told Bloomberg BNA.

OSHA still hasn’t issued its enforcement directive for the rule, Cannon said. Although the guidance is intended for agency inspectors, the directive is useful for others trying to understand which practices will comply with the rule.

While OSHA did issue a 95-page guide for small contractors, Cannon said, it isn’t realistic to think a company owner, who may double as the safety director, has time to read the document.

Cannon suggested that OSHA consider publishing a shorter guide dealing with specific issues.

Court Decision Awaits

Associated General Contractors is among several construction and manufacturer organizations challenging the rule in federal court.

Three days after the enforcement deadline, three federal judges in Washington Sept. 26 will hear arguments from union and industry attorneys asking the court to change the rule’s mandates. Department of Labor attorneys will defend the rule during the two-hour hearing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit ( N. Am.’s Bldg, Trades Unions v. OSHA , D.C. Cir., No. 16-1105, 8/17/17 ).

Industry attorneys will be representing a host of interests, including home builders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, metal foundries, and construction material manufacturers. All the groups urged the court to reverse the new silica exposure limits. They claim current technology can’t lower exposure levels at an affordable price.

Issues raised by unions center on the rule’s requirements for when employers must offer free silica exposure testing to workers and what happens to a worker’s job security when doctors decide an employee can no longer be in a position where silica exposure is likely.

The judges will likely take several months to issue their order.