Burning questions

Could co-generation plant fire back up?

The POPI cogeneration plant in Oroville, while still in operation.

The POPI cogeneration plant in Oroville, while still in operation.

file photo by dugan gascoyne

The controversial cogeneration plant in south Oroville that burned biofuel to produce electricity for 30 years before shutting down last October may have some suitors looking to fire up operations again.

The Pacific Oroville Power Inc. plant (POPI) is owned by New Jersey-based Covanta Energy and for years was under scrutiny by the Butte County District Attorney’s Office for possible environmental violations. The DA is currently in negotiations with Covanta on the payment for final cleanup of the plant and removal of contaminated ash that was deposited in Butte and Glenn counties. In the meantime, Covanta has maintained its operating permits to keep the plant financially attractive to potential buyers.

“It doesn’t look like they will ever open up again, but they want to keep their pollution credits so they can sell that and offset anything they give to us,” said District Attorney Mike Ramsey. “They still own the property.”

Ramsey said there has been some interest in that property.

“We’ve gotten inquiries from the city of Oroville,” he said. “They were looking at it, as it’s bad to have it sitting empty. ‘We can make jobs,’ they said. And I say, ‘Yeah, at what cost?’ You fire that place up, you’re just affecting the health of the citizens of Oroville.”

One inquiry Ramsey was not aware of is from a local group that contacted the Butte Environmental Council, which has been tracking dioxin levels in chicken eggs and other sources located near the plant.

An Oroville woman named Annette DeBrotherton said in an email to BEC that she and some supporters are looking to take over the POPI plant and operate what she says is a much cleaner power-producing facility.

“[W]e are currently negotiating to take over the old Covanta co-generation plant (POPI) and strip out its dirty, dioxin-producing incinerators, and replace them with very clean pyrolysis systems that produce no dioxin, CO, SO4, and virtually no CO2, as all the carbon is sequestered in its anaerobic, exothermic reactors,” she wrote.

The complex system, she said, will in the end produce only oxygen and “pure water.”

BEC Executive Director Robyn DiFalco.

file photo by matt siracusa

“We know that not only is it possible,” she said, “it is a beneficial activity when used where it belongs, instead of just being tossed out a smokestack like garbage.”

(DeBrotherton could not be reached for comment by the CN&R’s deadline.)

Robyn DiFalco, executive director of BEC, said the organization had first heard about this proposal a couple of weeks ago.

“We said, ‘Well, gosh, this might be a big deal,’” DiFalco said.

BEC staff member Julia Murphy, she said, met with DeBrotherton, who is a Chico State graduate student.

“I think she is well-meaning and wants to do the right thing,” DiFalco said of DeBrotherton. “She wanted BEC to get on board and say, ‘This new technology is good, clean, green energy, and we should support it.’ At this point, what we are getting is that pyrolysis is a bad technology. But we don’t know enough about it and we need to know more. We want to know how legitimate this really is.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines pyrolysis as “the heating of an organic material, such as biomass, in the absence of oxygen. Because no oxygen is present, the material does not combust but the chemical compounds (i.e., cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin) that make up that material thermally decompose into combustible gases and charcoal.”

DiFalco said it is not clear just what the proposed new plant would use as fuel.

“Is it processing waste or not?” she asked. “Some of the emails [DeBrotherton] sent us said they are going to process tires and liquefy them and turn that into energy. We need to know more.”

In recent years, POPI began burning “urban waste,” which is the remains of torn-down buildings that can contain metals, asbestos and other potential environmentally damaging materials. The DA’s office caught wind of this new practice and tested the resulting on-site ash for toxicity.

Last year, a 19,000-ton pile of ash from the facility discovered off of Hicks Lane in north Chico tested high in dioxins, which can cause developmental and reproductive problems, and cancer, among other things. The ash was eventually moved to a landfill in Wheatland. Ash was also piled in the Glenn County community of Artois and then plowed into agricultural land as a soil amendment, including a corn field whose crop is used as cattle feed.

Ramsey said his office believes the negotiations with Covanta for the costs of cleaning up the existing plant and the residual ash will be resolved by the end of the year.