April 21, 2022

California Wildfires and Hazardous Waste Removal

In 2018 and 2020, California experienced a record-setting fire season which resulted in damage and destruction to over 20,000 structures. This led to the generation of large quantities of hazardous and toxic waste—primarily paints, pesticides, and asbestos. Wildfire cleanups are a challenge because proper identification and management during response and cleanup can be difficult. Thus, EPA coordinated with federal, state, and local agencies to clean up and manage these hazardous wastes properly. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) documented the agency’s response and made recommentations in a March 2022 report titled Household Hazardous Waste Removal: EPA Should Develop a Formal Lessons Learned Process for Its Disaster Response.

EPA established incident management teams to develop plans for the assessment, removal, transportation, and disposal of the hazardous waste generated from the California wildfires. Wildfire-affected properties were then assigned to task forces, who were responsible for assessing the properties for any hazardous waste present.

Each designated task force would then begin separating the hazardous waste, containerizing it, and shipping it to designated staging areas. The hazardous waste from all properties was consolidated at the staging areas and then shipped to RCRA permitted disposal facilities.

Wildfire cleanup and hazardous waste management is a challenging and lengthy process. To improve on their cleanup operations, EPA gathered feedback from staff upon completion of the California wildfire cleanups and identified any areas in need of improvement. GAO recommended that the agency formalize its feedback process going forward.


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This document addresses issues of a general nature related to the federal RCRA regulations. Persons evaluating specific circumstances dealing with the RCRA regulations should review state and local laws and regulations, which may be more stringent than federal requirements. In addition, the assistance of a qualified professional should be enlisted to address any site-specific circumstances.