Settlement reached in POPI case

County effort to clean up cogeneration plant pays off

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, right, and DA environmental investigator Hal Thomas discuss the state court judgment against the POPI cogeneration plant in Oroville.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, right, and DA environmental investigator Hal Thomas discuss the state court judgment against the POPI cogeneration plant in Oroville.

Photo by chris saraga

A lawsuit filed against the New Jersey-based Covanta Energy Co. that for years operated the Pacific Oroville Power Inc. (POPI) cogeneration plant in South Oroville has been settled for $825,000, with $136,000 going to the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey and Hal Thomas, the county’s environmental prosecutor, organized and led the charge in filing the suit, which was based on the creation and distribution of contaminated ash from the burning of “urban waste” to create electricity. It was estimated that the POPI plant could create enough electricity to supply up to 20,000 households.

When it first fired up in the 1980s, the plant burned timber waste—wood chips created by loggers felling trees. But the timber industry dried up in the 1990s and the plant began burning “urban waste,” which is the remains of torn-down buildings that can contain metals, asbestos and other potentially environmentally damaging materials.

The DA’s office caught wind of this new practice and tested the resulting on-site ash for toxicity, including heavy metals and dioxins, the latter of which can cause developmental and reproductive problems, as well as cancer. Thomas said at one point the ash tested at the facility for dioxin showed 2,200 parts per trillion.

“That is just massive,” he said. “And that ash went off to farms in the region and that went on for a number of years.”

The ash was moved to landfills in the city of Anderson and Placer County. It also was 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.

“We said to them early on, ‘Folks, I understand you are desperate for a fuel source and I understand that the problem with the fuel source not being the clean fuel that we had around here. You are obviously being taken for a ride by people who are giving you dirty fuel,’” Ramsey said.

POPI said the company that was trucking in the urban waste provided test results that showed the waste was clean. Ramsey said that since he had no control in the jurisdiction where the waste was collected he had to insist on testing it locally. POPI argued that it was too expensive to test.

“At that point, they were running seven power plants in the state,” Thomas said.

Ramsey jokingly blamed the fall of the timber industry, which lead to POPI burning urban waste, on the environmentalists

“The damn environmentalist killed the timber industry around here,” he said. “They wouldn’t eat the spotted owl, which tastes just like bald eagle.”

Protection of the endangered spotted owl, which was listed as an endangered species in 1990, led to the protection of national forests in the northwest and what some say was the end of the timber industry.

“Remember when California started saying what a great job we were doing as far as recycling?” Thomas asked. “Guess what? That’s [urban] waste that was diverted to cogeneration power plants like the one here in Oroville. And that waste was diverted to our lungs. That’s the part that is so awful.”

Ramsey said as they became more aware of what was going on at the Oroville facility, his office began looking for other Covanta plants operating in the state. His office alerted the DAs in those other counties—Sacramento, Fresno, Kern, Stanislaus, Tulare and Tuolumne. Those counties joined Butte and Glenn (the latter was involved because of the dump site in Artois) in the lawsuit.

The settlement bars the company from transporting or disposing of the ash it creates at its existing plants or contracting it out as a soil amendment for agricultural use.

That part of the settlement is moot locally because Covanta shut down the POPI plant operations two years ago and now is reportedly looking to surrender its operating permit to the Butte County Air Quality Board.

“They told us to pound sand in mid-2011 when they were talking about closing,” Ramsey said. “We would have liked to see them continue operations if they burned clean fuel. We said we’d help them out. But it became clear that they weren’t about to start testing each load of fuel that came in or even sample it. So we said, ‘OK, to the bunkers.’”

The DA’s office will now work with a private group called the Oroville Dioxin Education Committee and Chico Environmental Science and Planning to conduct soil tests for dioxin across Oroville.