Ash pile raises concerns

DA’s Office links it to Oroville cogeneration plant

This large pile of possibly contaminated fly ash sits on property in north Chico just south of the airport. It was created by the operations at Oroville’s POPI cogeneration plant (inset).

This large pile of possibly contaminated fly ash sits on property in north Chico just south of the airport. It was created by the operations at Oroville’s POPI cogeneration plant (inset).

Photo by Tom Gascoyne

Covanta and the LA Times:
Samuel Zell, former chairman of the Board of Directors for the Covanta Holding Corp. is also the chairman of Tribune Co

A huge pile of fly ash recently discovered off Hicks Lane in north Chico has raised environmental concerns with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office. The pile, which is larger in length and width than a football field and about 20 feet tall, sits on property owned by MGM Trucking and has been traced to the Pacific Oroville Power Inc. cogeneration plant in Oroville.

Is the ash, which has sat on the site for the past three years, toxic? That’s a consideration because the company has confirmed that the ash has been spread on some area farms and orchards as a soil amendment. Burned wood ash reduces soil acidity.

A recent observation of the pile revealed metal products—nails, rebar and other chunks of rusted metal—mixed in with the ash.

For nearly 30 years the cogeneration plant, located in the Highway 70 Industrial Park, has burned bio-fuel in a controlled environment to make electricity that is then sold to Pacific Gas & Electric—enough to supply power to 20,000 homes. The plant, known as POPI, is owned by New Jersey-based Covanta. When it was first fired up, in 1983, POPI burned wood chips generated from local timber harvests. But as the lumber industry declined, the plant began burning agricultural waste as its fuel supply.

In more recent years it began receiving and burning the waste of demolished buildings trucked here from the Bay Area. Two years ago the Butte County District Attorney’s Office learned of POPI’s new operations when a DA investigator driving past the plant noticed clouds of dust blowing off the piles of fuel and drifting down from the conveyor belt that runs overhead to feed the furnaces.

“There was quite a bit of dust blowing into the neighborhood,” District Attorney Mike Ramsey said at the time. “So we contacted the Air Quality Management District and said, ‘This looks to be a problem.’

“They checked on it and then found an additional problem of dirty debris that’s coming up from the Bay Area as part of the fuel load.”

The problem was the “fuel” coming in was not being monitored, and checking the toxicity of the resulting ash was left up to the plant itself.

The DA’s Office learned of the pile in north Chico when it was tipped off in recent weeks. Ramsey said MGM had contracted with Covanta to dispose of the waste properly.

“That is what they are supposed to be doing,” Ramsey said in a recent interview.

Beyond that, information on the case is limited for a couple of reasons. The DA and Covanta are currently in negotiations over past alleged environmental violations. And there is an “ongoing investigation” into the toxicity levels of the ash. Ramsey said both Covanta and MGM are cooperating. Covanta has stopped using construction debris as a fuel and is back to burning ag and timber waste, Ramsey said.

The ash from the Hicks Lane pile is currently being tested for the presence of heavy metals, including lead and chromium. Local environmental scientist John Lane collected samples on Tuesday (Dec. 20), packed them into an ice chest and sent them to SunStar Laboratories in the Orange County city of Tustin. Lane said it takes about five days to get back the results.

Another reason information is tight is because of the potential damage that could result to the region’s ag industry if word gets out that some area orchards and farms were contaminated with toxic ash used as a soil amendment. This is not the first time that construction-waste ash from Covanta has been traced to area farms. And though results of previous tests of the ash sampled at the plant itself are known, at this point that information is being kept close to the vest because of ongoing negotiations and investigations, Ramsey said.

In a somewhat related matter, the Butte Environmental Council (BEC) is in the process of testing chicken eggs from properties near the Highway 70 Industrial Park. In 2007 the state began looking into a reported high incidence of pancreatic cancer in the Oroville area. In January 2008 the California Department of Public Health issued a report noting 23 cases of diagnosed pancreatic cancer of Oroville residents between 2004 and 2005.

Though the state has never put its finger on the exact cause, some point to the 1987 fire at the now-closed Koppers wood treatment plant, which sits close to Covanta in the industrial park. The fire burned an estimated 5,000 pounds of granular pentachlorophenol (PCP), a chemical used in the wood-treatment process. The dioxin-laced smoke from the fire drifted over the neighborhoods south of the park.

Subsequent tests showed alarmingly high levels of dioxins in the eggs and livestock sampled from the neighboring family farms. BEC’s Mary Muchowski says initially seven tests were conducted recently on eggs on property within a mile and a half of the park. Results, she said, ranged from .004 parts per trillion of dioxins to 14,7 parts per trillion. Muchowski said that there is no standard threshold in the United States for what’s considered safe, but generally eggs tested off the store shelf will be removed if they show 1 part per trillion or greater.

BEC, she said, is looking into finding out what the source of the present-day dioxins is, and noted the toxin doesn’t break down.

“There is not a lot of information available,” she said. “Tests for dioxins in the area have not been done by the state since 1994. We thought they would test every 10 to 15 years, but they haven’t.”

Some insiders, who wish to remain anonymous at this point in the investigation, suggest Covanta’s operations also could have played a role in the local contamination.