State specialists are working to clean up hazardous waste

Text: T T
Gazette Intern

Workers from the California Department of Substance Control are shown at one of the burned residences in Mariposa County. 
Submitted photo Workers from the California Department of Substance Control are shown at one of the burned residences in Mariposa County. Submitted photo The Detwiler fire is responsible for the destruction of over 60 homes and structures throughout Mariposa County, making it one of the worst fires in the history of Mariposa.

Though the fire is now under control, its effects on the County may still pose a threat.

Inside many homes, residents have many chemicals and potentially hazardous waste materials such as televisions and computers, which contain heavy metals toxic to the environment. When a home is consumed by a fire there are often remnants of such toxic materials left behind.

To assist with the proper disposal of toxic materials from properties devastated by the fire, Mariposa County has issued a special request to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

According to Denise Tsuji, a branch chief manager of the department, an emergency response group is in Mariposa County inspecting as many properties as possible.

Tsuji said the group will be in Mariposa part of this week, though it is difficult to get an exact time frame for the project.

She said the group, consisting of two DTSC members along with contractors, will first evaluate where staging areas and equipment can be set up before beginning their inspections. The group will also be setting up access agreements with property owners and environmental agencies.

Tsuji stressed the importance of having property owner cooperation in order to ask questions regarding what materials were in or around any burnt structures.

Some structures and materials with the potential to be hazardous include old buildings with asbestos containing substances; batteries; cars, computers and TVs that contain heavy metals; as well as gardening materials such as pesticides and weed killers.

To find the materials, Tsuji said that many times the group, wearing protective gear, must pick through ash and other debris, so the process may take some time.

When a harmful chemical or product is found, Tsuji said the process consists of finding a proper container for the substance until it can be brought to an appropriate disposal site.

Tsuji has been working for DTSC since the 1980s and said the emergency response program began in the 1990s after a major rail spill in Northern California.

“There was a large oil spill and the state decided it needed professionals with the ability to respond quickly,” Tsuji said.

Since then, Tsuji said, the emergency response team has not only assisted with the aftermath of fires but also abandoned materials and chemicals that have the potential to be harmful.

Throughout her years with the department, Tsuji said when dealing with fires, she has learned that early communication is highly important and that the department likes to be in contact with a county even when a fire is still going.

Of Mariposa County, Tsuji said, “It has been very organized.”

She gave an example, saying the County has provided GPS systems for the group to accurately locate properties, where in the past they have had to roughly judge where a location was.

When asked how well she felt the program worked in the past, Tsuji felt it does help.

“I think it has been very successful in helping homeowners clear their properties so they can come one step closer to rebuilding their homes,” said Tsuji.

She continued, saying, “We are very gratified to be able to help this community.”

Hanna Olson is a summer intern for the Mariposa Gazette and can be reached at

2017-08-10 / Local News

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