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Material to be applied in Maui burn zone to stop contaminated runoff

The biodegradable, nontoxic material, which will turn pink, will be applied to stop toxic substances in the burn area from running off into the ocean, an EPA official said.
An aerial image taken on Aug. 10, 2023 shows destroyed homes and buildings on the waterfront burned to the ground in Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii.
An aerial image taken Aug. 10 shows homes and buildings on the waterfront burned to the ground in Lahaina after wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii. Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

LAHAINA, Hawaii — With more of the burn zone searched each day, the charred black earth and ash will soon turn pink as a “water-based glue” is applied to prevent winds and rain from kicking it up and running off into the ocean.

Workers for the Environmental Protection Agency’s incident response team will begin applying the biodegradable, nontoxic material, known as a “soil tackifier,” in the coming days, using water trucks that will spray the material from hoses, an agency official said.

The process will not begin until the search-and-rescue operation is deemed complete, said Steve Calanog, the incident commander for EPA Region 9, which covers Hawaii. As of Friday night, about 78% of the burn zone had been searched, officials said.

At least 114 people have been confirmed dead in the wind-fueled wildfire that swept across the historic town of Lahaina.

Officials have said a number of toxic substances, including lead, asbestos and arsenic, have most likely contaminated the burn area after the fire moved through, burning at extremely high temperatures. The move was intended to prevent the movement of potentially dangerous contaminants, Calanog said, calling it an “utmost precaution.”

Unique conditions led to the decision, he said. The proximity to the ocean and leeward winds, which gust strongly most afternoons, healed lead the EPA, the state of Hawaii and Maui County to agree to the plan.

“It’ll be dyed pink,” Calanog said. "Once it’s applied and dried, it’ll be visually obvious that we’ve gone through.”

As they do, workers will also look to remove household hazardous waste, which can include compressed gas cylinders, solvents, pesticides and, in some cases, radiologic sources.

The EPA says the glue has not been used extensively on other wildfires. It's environmentally safe, naturally breaking down after about six months or if it’s physically disturbed by people walking on it.

A material safety data sheet for the brand, Soiltac, identifies the soil stabilizer as presenting no risk to human health and as not being flammable, according to the U.S. Hazardous Materials Identification System.

Calanog called the EPA’s response to the fire “emotional” and “solemn."

“The cultural and historic significance of Lahaina is huge,” Calanog said. “We do this in a way that honors and respects the traditions of the state of Hawaii.”