The environmental agency says it will be tougher to clean up areas around apartment buildings where debris has piled up.

Pesticides, fertilizers, asbestos, oil, pressurized fuel and other hazardous materials dislodged onto the landscape by the Lahaina wildfire have been removed from more than 85% of the 5-mile-wide burn zone, federal regulators announced Thursday.

Progress on the cleanup, which began Aug. 28, brings the recovery effort one step closer to allowing residents to return to their damaged and destroyed properties for closure and to find out what sentimental items might have survived the deadly inferno. The county has been inviting residents back to their properties on a rolling basis as workers remove toxins and hazards.

Apartment buildings have not yet been addressed by environmental authorities. This is due to a large pile-up of debris, which has made access difficult for cleanup crews, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Aug. 28 began a surface-level cleanup of toxins spread onto the Lahaina landscape by the Aug. 8 wildfire. The effort is now more than 85% complete. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“It’s a higher concentration of hazardous material, far more difficult entry in sorting through all of the materials so it’s a far more complicated effort,” said EPA spokesman Bill Dunbar.

The agency is developing a plan to address multi-family dwellings while working through the single-family parcels first, Dunbar said.

As the EPA cleanup moves forward, crews are using a soil stabilizer to temporarily glue down toxic ash to prevent toxins from becoming airborne or washing into the ocean or aquifers as the rainy season approaches. 

The EPA-recommended soil stabilizer, called Soiltac, is being sprayed on the burned properties on approximately 128 acres, a fraction of the estimated 2,170 acres that were scorched by the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire, which killed at least 99 people.

Environmental authorities are also working in tandem with Maui County leaders to dispose of electric cars containing lithium-ion batteries, which officials say they’re treating as unexploded bombs. 

Due to the particular dangers associated with lithium-ion batteries, the county has cautioned car owners to stay away from any electric vehicles with fire damage.

Meanwhile, the county is seeking the public’s help to identify an estimated 4,000 burned-out vehicles that were destroyed by the Lahaina fire. Residents with a damaged vehicle in the burn zone can submit an online form with the vehicle’s last known location, make and model by Friday.

A soil stabilizer was sprayed on burned ash and debris of this house Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Lahaina. While it is difficult to visually discern the area was sprayed, once dried, it will feel different. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A soil stabilizer was sprayed on burned ash and debris at this residential property in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The hazardous materials cleanup underway in Lahaina targets only those contaminants that can be seen at surface level. 

After an EPA property cleanup is completed, it’s possible that some toxic materials remain on the site. Any lingering hazards — unstable structures, sharp metal objects, exposed electrical wires, toxic ash and any subsurface contaminants — would be addressed during the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ debris removal effort, which is the next step in the remediation process.

Also on Thursday Hawaii Gov. Josh Green met in the Washington, D.C., with top FEMA officials, who vowed that the agency would maintain an uninterrupted presence on Maui throughout a lengthy recovery process, according to a FEMA press release.

Hawaii’s federal delegation also met with FEMA leaders and asked the agency to improve communication with wildfire survivors. 

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

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