San Diego Union Tribune

October 15, 2005

FEMA nixes county bid to recoup $6.5 million
Local money was spent to remove wildfire debris

By Joe Cantlupe

WASHINGTON – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has rejected San Diego County's latest effort to recoup the $6.5 million it spent to remove 22,900 tons of debris after massive fires two years ago.

Since the Otay, Paradise and Cedar fires in October 2003, the county and FEMA have been at loggerheads over who should pay to remove the debris, which was on private property. The fires destroyed more than 5,000 structures and blackened nearly 375,000 acres.

The county has accused FEMA of acting improperly in withholding the funds. The county had to remove the debris to protect nearby reservoirs from toxic chemicals in the ash, officials said.

But FEMA said yesterday it has upheld the decision made last year by the agency's regional office in San Francisco, which denied San Diego's claim. FEMA has already reimbursed the county $6.8 million for other costs associated with the fires.

"The appeal contained no documentation demonstrating an immediate threat posed by the ash piles to public health and safety," Daniel A. Craig, director of FEMA's recovery division, wrote in a Sept. 27 letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Office of Emergency Services, which supports San Diego County's appeal. "There is no basis for reversing the region's determination."

County officials said yesterday they have not been notified of FEMA's decision.

"We haven't received anything official, but I'd be extremely disappointed with a FEMA denial," said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "The county went to great lengths to meet the requirements of FEMA in order to get reimbursement. We are going to meet soon to decide what to do next."

Rodney Lorang, the deputy county counsel who has led the county's fight, was not available yesterday, officials said.

In documents filed in Washington in March, San Diego County accused regional FEMA officials of "willfully misrepresenting" and "withholding critical information" concerning the county's effort to regain the money it spent removing piles of burned TVs and charred refrigerators.

What particularly troubles county officials is that FEMA rejected the advice of it's own consultant, GeoSyntec Consultants, which said the county deserved the money because the debris was near watersheds and reservoirs.

Instead, FEMA relied on an oral opinion from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which said the consultant's viewpoint was wrong. County officials said they didn't learn about the EPA report until they submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to FEMA.

A study of that magnitude should have warranted a written review, the county said.

"It is baffling that a federal agency would spend $158,000 on a 350-page study by an acknowledged leader in environmental assessments, only to dismiss the study out of hand," said Marc Kuritz, a former staff officer in the county chief administrative officer's environmental group.

In a document supporting San Diego County's appeal, the governor's office said fire-damaged homes contained toxic and hazardous substances that were incorporated into the ash and that during the rainy season the debris could be washed into the San Vicente and El Capitan reservoirs.

By early December 2003, fewer than 10 percent of the private property owners had cleared debris from their lots, so the county worked quickly to remove it.

"The county's decision to collect this ash before it could be washed into drinking water reservoirs was necessary to protect public health," Lorang said in the county's appeal to FEMA in March.

In the study commissioned by FEMA, GeoSyntec verified that the ash and debris on private property contained high concentrations of heavy metals, including lead, cadmium and arsenic.

In its appeal the county said FEMA has provided funds related to private property debris in other instances, including the 1991 Oakland fire that destroyed 2,300 single-family homes.

Joe Cantlupe: (202) 737-7687;

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