EPA officials have launched a decontamination effort as investigators wrap up their search-and-recovery mission.

The search for bodies of fire victims in Lahaina has come to a close as environmental regulators begin to remove toxic chemicals dislodged during the Aug. 8 disaster from the ash-covered landscape.

Contaminants from everyday household items unleashed by the fires range from asbestos and heavy metals to pesticides and fertilizers and pose potentially life-threatening effects, officials said Tuesday. Solar panel batteries present a particularly serious threat, and officials said they are treating them as unexploded ordnance.

Teams from the Environmental Protection Agency finished scrubbing hazardous materials from the Upcountry disaster zone this past weekend and on Monday began the much more involved task of doing the same in Lahaina.

Maui Emergency Management Agency interim Administrator Darryl Oliveira speaks at a press conference about the fires, Aug. 29, 2023, in the Kalana O Maui Building in Wailuku. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Emergency Management Agency interim Administrator Darryl Oliveira explained the next phase at a press conference, Tuesday, in the Kalana O Maui Building in Wailuku. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The cleanup brings the recovery effort one step closer to allowing residents to return to their damaged and destroyed properties to find out what sentimental items might have survived the deadly inferno.

Officials on Tuesday did not offer a timeline for allowing residents to return to their homes in the burn zone. Toxins and then hazardous debris, including unstable structures, must be removed first.

“We really want to make sure when we let people in it’s safe,” said Maui Emergency Management Agency interim Administrator Darryl Oliveira, who reported to his first day on the job Monday.

He underscored that no debris removal will begin without the written consent of the property owner, and that a plan for residents to access their property is being developed.

“Anyone that would be on the mission will be trained to look at personal items and set those aside,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Pevey, Honolulu District Commander for the US Army Corps of Engineers, which will oversee the effort to remove dangerous debris. “There’s no intention to go in there and bulldoze stuff down.”

The EPA predicts it could take months to remove and dispose of hazardous household items, including paints, cleaners, solvents, oil, batteries and fuel. The agency said it will monitor for any air pollution stirred up during contaminant removal.

More than two dozen Hawaiian cultural practitioners will oversee the hazardous materials and debris cleanup and officials said they have the power to halt the recovery work if workers fail to approach their work with respect.

Officials emphasized that crews will only remove toxins and structural hazards from homes and businesses, not personal belongings.

“Every step we take forward is a step with purpose, intent and sensitivity,” said Oliveira, noting that officials have dubbed the next step in disaster recovery, after hazardous materials have been removed, the “return to Lahaina phase.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency incident commander Steve Calanog reviews his notes during a press conference, Aug. 29, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency incident commander Steve Calanog said he has 25 cultural observers on his team to ensure the agency proceeds with respect. The EPA team on island now consists of 150 people, and 30% are local hires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

He took the reins from Herman Andaya, who resigned 11 days ago citing health reasons. Andaya had faced criticism for not sounding the emergency sirens when the fires tore through Lahaina.

Oliveira said he has been working with the governor, mayor and other officials on new protocols going forward.

“Sirens will be used in the future,” he said, adding that portable sirens are being brought in to replace those damaged in the Lahaina fire.

Officials declined to comment Tuesday on the county’s lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric. The utility’s downed power lines in Lahaina are believed to have sparked the fire the morning of Aug. 8.

Hawaiian Electric deflected blame Sunday, saying fire fighters extinguished the morning fire but could not control an afternoon fire with an undetermined cause that flared up nearby.

“Three weeks after the devastation of Lahaina, we are still working to recover and to strengthen our defenses against future weather-driven emergencies, including windstorms and wildfires,” Major General Kenneth Hara, Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura and Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a joint statement Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, doctors are pressing forward with the forensic nightmare that is identifying the dead. 

Not enough people have had their cheeks swabbed to produce a DNA sample, a crucial tool in the arduous effort to put a name to the bones and bone fragments salvaged from the ashes.

Dr. Jeremy Thomas Stuelpnagel, coroner's physician, answers a question during a press conference, Aug. 29, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Dr. Jeremy Thomas Stuelpnagel, coroner’s physician, answered questions during a press conference, Tuesday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Dr. Jeremy Thomas Stuelpnagel, the coroner’s physician, said at the press conference that the shortage of DNA samples from victims’ close family members is hampering the identification process. 

In the absence of DNA from the parents, children or siblings of the missing, investigators are left to rely on body and dental X-rays, medical history reports and other information gleaned from medical records or information shared by family members.

Three people have been confirmed dead using fingerprints, but most of the remains excavated from Lahaina are so badly burned that investigators have no fingerprints to go on.

On Tuesday, the county released the identities of three additional victims, all of Lahaina: Joseph Lara, 86; Gwendolyn Puou, 83; and Edward Sato, 76.

The precise number of people who perished in Lahaina remains unknown. With 115 confirmed fatalities and 388 people still unaccounted for, only 54 victims have been identified as of Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday state and federal officials began scouring Lahaina’s nearshore waters for personal belongings that may help the identification effort. Divers from the U.S. Navy concluded a two-day long search Tuesday. And late last week snorkelers from the Maui Fire Department scouted the coastline from Puamana Beach Park to Wahikuli Wayside Park.

No bodies were recovered during the ocean search missions.

Some victims may never be found. Others may not be discovered for many weeks, months or even years.

In August 2021, two victims of the 9/11 attacks were identified through advancements in DNA testing. Roughly 40% of the victims at ground zero have no identified remains and scientists are still trying to identify tens of thousands of bones and bone fragments recovered from the Twin Towers wreckage.

“That’s one of the terrible tragedies within this tragedy,” said Robert Mann, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Hawaii who has helped identify victims of airplane crashes, natural disasters, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and now the Maui fires.

“Everybody working out there wants to do their very best, I truly believe, to bring closure and identification to every single family,” he said. “That’s the goal. But whether or not we achieve the goal, I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, firefighters are standing on guard for an onslaught of more dry, windy conditions.

The National Weather Service on Monday issued the first fire weather watch for Hawaii’s leeward coasts since the Aug. 8 fires on Maui that obliterated most of Lahaina town, killing at least 115 people, and ravaged parts of Upcountry. Triggered by a forecast of windy, dry conditions, the watch — which is less severe than a red flag warning — is effective midday Wednesday through 6 p.m. Thursday.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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