A massive environmental cleanup launched in the wake of an explosion and fire that killed eight people and incinerated a San Bruno neighborhood on Sept. 9 reached a turning point this afternoon when the final remains of 34 homes destroyed in the disaster were trucked away.
San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane and City Manager Connie Jackson used two golden shovels to load a small pile of twisted debris into a bulldozer at the corner of Glenview and Claremont avenues, symbolically completing the removal of several tons of debris from the houses that were closest to the PG&E natural gas pipeline when it blew up nearly five weeks ago.
The effort to clear the neighborhood of burned property was made urgent by the upcoming rainy season, which officials feared could spread toxic waste such as asbestos into the air and downstream to the San Francisco Bay.
Air and ground monitoring tests conducted throughout the process showed that the coordinated effort was an environmental success, San Mateo County Environmental Health Services Division Director Dean Peterson said.
The Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood has been fully cleared of waste and bulldozed into adjacent parcels of dirt.
Among the parcels is an empty lot that was the site of Glenview Park, a public park whose burned-out playground also had to be removed during the cleanup.
Two heavily damaged homes that were previously listed as destroyed have since been determined to be salvageable, Jackson said, bringing the total of destroyed properties to 35.
This afternoon's brief ceremony in the quiet neighborhood symbolized a new phase of the community's recovery effort, clearing the way for residents to begin the design and planning processes of home reconstruction.
"They are looking forward to rebuilding, and we are looking forward to helping them one-on-one," Ruane said.
At the first regularly scheduled City Council meeting since the disaster, council members tonight intend to direct the city's Planning Department to allow an expedited permitting review process for victims whose homes were damaged or destroyed, Jackson said.
Council members also plan to adopt a resolution instituting a complete waiver of associated filing fees for reconstruction.
Jackson said that the process of submitting building plans for architectural review, permitting and inspections could take as little as three months -- about half the time of getting plans approved under normal circumstances.
"We are prepared to move at the rate our residents want," Jackson said, adding that additional temporary planning and inspection staff would likely be needed to accommodate the accelerated workload.
Since the cleanup effort began, a team of 40 workers removed an estimated 7,166 tons of metal, concrete, soil and ash in more than 300 truckloads, Peterson said.
Approximately 48 percent of the debris was able to be recycled, Peterson said.
Charred stands of eucalyptus trees, pines and brush that remain in the neighborhood are in the process of being cut down and will also be recycled, raising the projected total of recycled debris removed from the disaster site to more than 50 percent.
In a late announcement, Jackson told reporters that a representative from the San Francisco Giants is scheduled to attend the City Council meeting this evening and present the city with a $120,000 check donated by the team.
The money is slated to go into a fund that has been established to directly benefit the victims of the disaster.