Fly in the ashes

Waste from co-generation plant tests high for dioxins

A pile of cogeneration plant fly ash that sits off Hicks Lane in north Chico.

A pile of cogeneration plant fly ash that sits off Hicks Lane in north Chico.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Last December the Butte County District Attorney’s Office was alerted to a huge pile of fly ash, some 19,000 tons of the stuff, sitting on property off Hicks Lane in North Chico. The ash, reported by a local citizen, was traced to the Covanta Energy-owned Pacific Oroville Power Inc. facility, which is located in Oroville’s Highway 70 Industrial Park.

The ash was recently tested by the Butte Environmental Council for the DA’s Office. While the ash does not reach the definition of hazardous, results do show dangerously elevated levels of dioxins and metals. The dioxin tested out at 459 parts per trillion, which is half of the amount classifying official hazardous waste, but well over the safety levels set by the World Health Organization.

The pile is larger in length and width than a football field, about 20 feet tall, and sits on property owned by MGM Trucking, which contracted with Covanta in 2008 to store the ash. And that property sits on federally designated wetlands. The DA is in the process of prosecuting the company for its disposal practices.

The cogeneration plant is mostly self-monitored, recording the type of fuel purchased and brought in for consumption, as well as the byproduct emitted from its exhaust stacks and the ash collected in its burners, the very material that ended up in a pile in north Chico.

The Oroville facility received its permit to operate in 1983. Initially, the plant burned wood chips generated from local timber harvests. But as the lumber industry declined, the plant began burning agricultural waste to ensure its fuel supply. Its incinerators consume 28 tons of fuel an hour.

In recent years the plant began incinerating the waste of demolished buildings trucked here from hundreds of miles away. Such fuel can contain metals and potentially toxic materials for burning.

DA Mike Ramsey said as they weather metals become more toxic and degrade to become either carried off as dust in the air or become runoff when it rains.

“Demolition debris can include arsenic from pressure-treated lumber, copper from wiring, and shipping pallets that may have held asbestos,” Ramsey said.

Covanta is now looking to dispose of the ash. Because of the high levels of dioxin, the ash must be dumped at either a Class II landfill, which takes things like oil and gas waste and creosoted lumber, or a Class I site like the facility in Kettleman City that takes highly toxic waste. Butte County’s Neal Road Landfill is designated as a Class III site and thus is not an option.

Waste Management operates a Class II landfill in Anderson, and Recology owns one in Wheatland.

“[Covanta has] indicated they are in the process of moving it, and we are in the process of moving them to do so,” said Ramsey. “They want to get to some sort of settlement.”

Covanta has told the DA’s Office that it is no longer burning urban wood waste and as such is looking to dispose of its ash on local farms as a “soil amendment,” a means of disposal it has used in the past.

“Covanta said it costs them $18 a ton to take it to a regular landfill, $48 a ton to the Class II landfill in Wheatland and a little less to take it to the one in Anderson,” said a source close to the case. “The problem is the landfill in Anderson is less restrictive, and they tend to use the ash for daily cover, which is the stuff you put over the garbage you bring in every day.”

That cover, the source said, has a tendancy to blow into the air, which is why it is called “fly ash.”

“This is a problem,” said the source. “And there’s been no dioxin testing of ash [from cogeneration plants] anywhere else in the state. We are the first to do so, and Covanta owns plants up and down the state.”

BEC has been testing chicken eggs in the Oroville area for dioxins. In 1987 a fire at the now-closed Koppers wood treatement plant spread a cloud of dioxin-laced smoke over farms to the south of the plant. Today eggs from farms to the west and north of the site are also testing high for dioxins, suggesting the source could be the Covanta plant.

A call to Covanta headquarters in Patterson, N.J., asking for comment was not returned by deadline.