Oroville cogeneration plant spices up its fuel load. But is it safe?
For the past 25 years, a cogeneration plant in Oroville has burned biofuel in a controlled environment to make electricity that is then sold to Pacific Gas & Electric—enough, it is said, to supply power to 20,000 homes.
But lately the fuel mixture used to create that energy has changed, and some local officials are concerned.
The plant, Pacific Oroville Power Inc., or POPI, sits on 30 acres just south of downtown Oroville in the heart of the Highway 70 Industrial Park. That park is a cobbled hotspot of toxic waste that over the years has been home to three federal Superfund cleanup sites.
POPI’s parent company, Covanta, owns more than 30 other cogeneration facilities across the country, including a number in California, and has investments in similar plants in Europe and China.
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 a demanding 28 tons of fuel an hour.
Now, apparently, to keep those fires burning, the plant incinerates the waste of demolished buildings trucked here from hundreds of miles away.
The facility is self-monitored for the most part, recording the type of fuel purchased and brought in for consumption, as well as the byproduct emitted from its exhaust stacks. POPI supplies this data annually to the Butte County Air Quality Management District (AQMD).
District inspectors make spot visits to check fuel contents and emissions, but a full evaluation of just what comes out of those exhaust stacks has not been conducted since 1988.
On a recent summer day the site was a stark field of straggly brown weeds, cobblestone and barren dirt framed behind a 10-foot-tall cyclone fence topped with strands of barbed wire. Bulky dump trucks and yellow bulldozers rumbled and snorted next to huge loads of debarked logs, hills of wood chips and an enormous pile of broken pallets, twisted boxes, broken doors and busted-up crates.
Local officials have come to learn that up to one-third of the plant’s fuel now consists of what is euphemistically called “urban wood waste,” which is basically the remains of demolished buildings.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said last week that his office made this discovery 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,” Ramsey said. “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 “dirty debris,” Ramsey said, includes contaminants like plastic and other potentially toxic materials.
“It’s urban demolition,” the DA explained. “Lots of different stuff that is supposed to be taken out of the load, which is supposed to be inspected when it comes in.”
When contacted, POPI’s plant manager, Francisco Beraga, directed all questions to Covanta’s corporate offices in New Jersey. Calls there had not been returned by press time.
Dimitri Stanich, press information officer for the state Air Resources Board, said there are 35 air-quality-management districts in California, and each sets its own standards for air emissions. It is well known that Butte County has some of the dirtiest air in the state.
This raises the question: Is it simply easier and cheaper to ship demolished building debris to Butte County for disposal? The answer isn’t clear.
AQMD officials, Ramsey said, are now examining the cogeneration plant’s permit and looking to tighten up their inspections of the facility.
He also said that recently he and AQMD officials met with the vice president of Covanta, which is reportedly one of the largest energy companies in the world.
“They indicated that they are quite proud of their green reputation and do not want anything to happen to diminish that reputation,” Ramsey said. “So we’re saying, ‘Well, here is a problem.’
“They seem to be cooperative at this point in terms of open inspections; they’ve asked for our investigator to come by, and they are cooperating with the inspectors from the Air Quality Management District.”
Bob McLaughlin, assistant air pollution control officer at AQMD, said the plant’s permit to operate allows up to 30 percent urban wood waste as fuel. And up to 3 percent of that can be foreign debris including tarpaper, nails and plastic.
Sitting at a table in a large conference room in the AQMD offices off The Skyway in southeast Chico, McLaughlin had in front of him a stack of documents, including POPI’s permit to operate. The room’s plate-glass windows look northeast to the foothills, which on this day were shrouded in a smoky haze from fires burning in the Feather River Canyon.
The idea, he began, is that it’s better to burn waste in a controlled environment than to send it off to be buried in the state’s fast-filling landfills or allowed to smolder in the open air.
“Economics forced [POPI] to find alternative sources of fuel,” said McLaughlin, who’s been with the AQMD for 18 years. He pointed out that urban wood waste is supposed to be sifted for impurities before it is used as fuel.
“We’ve seen an increase in the last several years in the amount of urban waste being burned and haven’t found any issues with [POPI’s] permit,” McLaughlin said. “I’m not seeing that they are burning material not allowed under the permit.”
McLaughlin said the air district uses “pooled-source testing,” which means using test data from nearby facilities similar in size and fuel consumption to determine if the Butte County plant is meeting its permit requirements.
“Years ago there was some pooled-source testing done that looked at air toxics, dioxins, furans, PCBs, and different types of metals you generally find in these operations,” he said. “We completed a health-risk assessment to see if it posed a significant risk to the public. Our conclusion was that … no, it doesn’t.”
McLaughlin said he is unsure where the urban wood waste burned in Butte County originates. “We are talking with the facility to try to get a better handle on where this material is coming from,” he said.
POPI has been cooperative with AQMD, McLaughlin said, and the district is keeping an eye on the company’s operations.
“I actually went out and went through the plant myself a couple of weeks ago and looked at the fuel quality,” he said. “It was actually more of a way to identify opportunities where the facility might do a better job in controlling their emissions.
“We think we need to protect the health of the citizens of Butte County. I mean that is our job. But we also need this kind of facility. As long as they comply with their permit and we have test data that show it is not a significant health risk, we think they should be allowed to continue to do that.”