Ash pile moves

The toxic remains of a cogeneration plant are out of here, but questions remain

The Covanta-owned POPI plant (inset) sits inside Oroville’s Highway 70 Industrial Park.

The Covanta-owned POPI plant (inset) sits inside Oroville’s Highway 70 Industrial Park.

Photo By tom gascoyne

A 19,000-ton pile of dioxin- and metal-tainted ash that has sat off Hicks Lane in Chico for the past four years is on its way out of town for deposit in a Level 2 landfill in Wheatland.

Located since 2008 on property owned by MGM Trucking, the pile was discovered last fall by a curious passerby who reported it to the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.

The ash was traced to the Covanta Energy-owned Pacific Oroville Power Inc. facility in Oroville’s Highway 70 Industrial Park, which has been under the DA’s scrutiny over the past few years for possible pollution violations. For nearly 30 years POPI has burned biofuel to create electricity that it then sells to Pacific Gas & Electric.

Vicki Garner, of MGM Trucking, said the work to remove the pile started about a week ago and the job should be done within the next few weeks, provided the weather cooperates.

“The truck beds are covered with tarps, and the process is all up to code,” she said. Covanta, which had contracted with MGM to store the ash, is paying for its removal.

When it was first fired up in 1983, POPI burned wood chips generated from local timber harvests. But as the lumber industry declined locally, the plant began burning agricultural waste as its fuel supply. More recently it began using “urban waste,” the remains of torn-down buildings that can contain metals, asbestos and other less-than-eco-friendly materials.

Its operations created the huge ash pile located in north Chico.

Photo By dugan gascoyne

That process was stopped last year, but local officials have learned that, in addition to the urban waste, until recently POPI was also using carbon-dioxide-spewing bituminous coal. The coal comes from the Calgon Carbon Corp., which is based in Pittsburgh, Pa. It is used in filtering devices that remove toxins from water or other polluted sources. As such, there is concern about the ash and smoke produced by the incineration of such fuel.

Ironically, on its website Calgon Carbon notes: “For more than 50 years, we’ve pioneered leading-edge services for drinking water, wastewater, odor control, pollution abatement, solvent recovery, ultraviolet lamp systems, and a variety of industrial and commercial manufacturing processes. In addition to being the world’s leading producer and supplier of activated carbon and UV Technologies, we offer the industry’s broadest range of field and technical services.”

It goes on: “Producing more than 100 types of granular, powdered and pelleted activated carbons made from coal, wood or coconut char, Calgon Carbon remains committed to meeting our customers’ toughest purification, separation and concentration challenges.”

A local source said the coal being burned in the POPI plant was found to be 95 percent bituminous coal and 5 percent coconut shell.

James Gray, the inside technical sales rep for the Vallejo-based Calgon plant, was vague in an email response asking about the environmental concerns of burning coal once used as a filtering medium.

“We don’t dispose of carbon at Calgon Carbon,” he wrote. “We actually have a reactivation process where we burn off all of the volatiles and use a steam reactivation process. For disposal of carbon, you will need to contact a local incinerator for a question on environmental concerns.”

Efforts to reach POPI by phone were not successful. The ash from the coal burning, which is reportedly still on POPI property, has not been tested for toxins.

In the meantime, efforts to trace where ash from the north Chico pile may have been used as an agricultural soil amendment points to farms owned by Roger Jack Lapant, a former POPI employee. Those properties are in Oroville and Durham.

There are reportedly a number of POPI ash piles sitting in the Glenn County community of Artois, but because of ongoing litigation, a source said, those piles cannot be tested at the present time for possible contamination.