The Mammoth Lakes Contractors Association (MLCA) hosted a packed meeting on Thursday, Feb. 12 in Suite Z. The purpose: to disseminate information about waste disposal, insurance, and building inspections, after the Round Fire swept through Paradise and Swall Meadows on Feb. 6, destroying 40 residences and outbuildings, and scorching properties and open lots.
Considering the scale of the tragedy, which burned about a third of Swall Meadows’ properties, many residents are itching to begin clearing away debris and rebuilding their homes.
Unfortunately, residents found this week that neither Benton Crossing Road nor the Transfer Station on Lower Rock Creek Road can accept “mixed burned debris” from fire-damaged or destroyed homes.
This is per State Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board standards. The restrictions against mixed burned waste are in place to protect the health of those who come in contact with the waste, as “ash and debris from burned buildings and homes can contain toxic substances due to the presence of synthetic and hazardous materials,” states a Feb. 11 Mono County Public Advisory Notice.
“Older buildings often contain asbestos and lead,” the Advisory continues. “Household hazardous waste such as gasoline, cleaning products, pesticides, and other chemicals may have been stored in homes, garages, or sheds that may have burned in the fire. These materials can become concentrated in ash and soil following a fire.”
The restriction leaves residents between a rock and a hard place. Either residents sit tight and watch another weather event turn the area into an ash bowl or toxic mudslide, or they must somehow orchestrate and pay for a journey to a transfer station that will accept mixed burned waste, such as in Lancaster, Calif. or Sparks, Nevada.
Residents were understandably confused and frustrated at the MLCA meeting.
“Is debris safe to leave there, with the amount of wind we have in Swall? Is that a consideration?” asked one resident.
“The short answer is yes, that’s a consideration and a concern,” said Mono County Environmental Health Director Louis Molina. “I think everyone’s intent is to get this moving as soon as possible.”
“We’ve been struggling to try to keep pace with this evolving issue,” admitted Mono County Solid Waste Superintendent Tony Dublino. He explained that there is a possibility that CalRecycle would come in and clean up the debris, with the State paying 75 percent of the cost, and the County shouldering the remaining 25 percent.
“CalRecycle has teams of people that specialize in this. They would come to the site, hire contractors, and do all of the cleanup, removal, and disposal,” Dublino said. This can be pricey, however. CAO Jim Leddy said the estimated cost from previous experiences is about $36,000 per lot. That comes to about $500,000 paid by the County.
In Leddy’s written request for California Disaster Assistance Act Funding (CDAA), the County also requested that the State waive its 25 percent contribution.
“We don’t have the funds,” Leddy said.
But both CDAA funding and CalRecycle aid await Governor Brown’s approval of Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun’s declaration of a State of Emergency, said Dublino.
“Hopefully we’ll get direction from the Governor by the end of this week [Friday, Feb. 12],” Leddy said. If CalRecycle does provide assistance, Leddy estimated cleanup would take about 30 days.
In the meantime, Dublino outlined several options for residents. “I interpret ‘mixed burned debris’ as waste that’s non-segregated,” he said. “Any materials we normally recycle; steel, wood waste, appliances, vehicles, if segregated, can be brought to the landfill for recycling purposes.”
Dublino added that the County will also extend accounts to any residents from Swall and Paradise bringing waste to the landfill. These accounts will help people track disposal expenses and defer payment. Should the Board of Supervisors waive any fees associated with the cleanup, something Dublino said the Board is considering, the accounts would be adjusted accordingly.
Finally, Dublino said he is “exploring options for a temporary staging area for waste, and a potential long-hauler.” This option could be imployed “if CalRecycle doesn’t make it here,” he said.
Leddy cautioned residents against continued cleanup work in damaged areas. “The health issue is a real issue,” he said. He explained that the County had re-opened Paradise and Swall to residents against the advice of the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), because it recognized how important a return would be to residents needing to come to terms with their loss—and to search for items the fire might have spared.
But Leddy also said Cal OES believed simple dust masks are not effective protection during cleanup. “You need something that creates an air seal,” he said.
When one resident noted that the State standards prohibiting the disposal of mixed fire waste do not appear to apply to a single burned home, Leddy admitted he, too, was flummoxed.
“I have not been able to get an answer as to why there’s a disconnect between a single house or large neighborhood, and this situation,” he said.
“I am confused also,” echoed Mono County Supervisor Fred Stump in an email on Thursday. “This information is new to the County … and we are playing catch up. I am sorry that circumstances have occurred that require us to know this.”
“The people affected by this, what do they do?” asked one audience member at Thursday’s MLCA meeting. “Sit back and wait?”
“We know what you want to do is have the shelter back; have the safety of your home back,” said Leddy. But while the County continues to pursue facts and options, he added, “Just try and tread carefully.”