Toxic education

Environmental group shines light on Oroville

This billboard is among a number of advertisements warning Oroville residents about the presence of dioxin in the region’s soil.

This billboard is among a number of advertisements warning Oroville residents about the presence of dioxin in the region’s soil.

Photo By butte environmental council

The Butte Environmental Council has launched an educational campaign in Oroville to help alert citizens to the dioxin contamination that has plagued the southern part of town for decades. Billboards demanding action and a series of public forums have been funded by grants from Ventura-based outdoor-clothing company Patagonia Inc. and the Clif Bar Family Foundation.

Mark Stemen, president of BEC’s board of directors, said Clif Bar and Patagonia both have campaigns aimed at helping low-income communities deal with the toxic problems they may face.

“They were very inspired by the issues and the work we’ve been doing in south Oroville,” Stemen said.

Dioxins have been linked to human reproductive and developmental problems, damaged immune systems and cancer. In 2007, a report by the California Department of Public Health on cancer data found 23 cases of pancreatic cancer in Oroville in 2004 and 2005, which was twice the expected number. No official cause was ever cited, however.

The presence of the contaminants has been linked to two fires at the now-closed Koppers wood-treatment plant in the Highway 70 Industrial Park. The first occurred 50 years ago and burned for a week, releasing clouds of dioxin-laced smoke that hovered over the small farms in the area.

A second fire ignited in 1987, which led to the evacuation of nearby residents and once again released a plume of dioxin-contaminated smoke over the area. Liver samples taken from two cows raised on the same farm showed similar levels of dioxin, even though one was slaughtered in 1985 and the other in 1988. This, according to a report in Environmental Health Perspectives, suggests both fires caused dioxin contamination, in the first case 23 years after the initial Koppers fire.

In 1988, chicken eggs from 25 Oroville homes were collected and tested by the state. Of those, 72 percent showed dioxin contamination, including eggs from as far as 7 miles away from the wood-treatment plant.

More recently, dioxins have been traced to the Pacific Oroville Power Inc. plant, or POPI, a co-generation plant that closed down operations last year after it was investigated by the Butte County District Attorney’s Office for environmental violations. The plant, which initially burned scraps of wood from forestry operations to create electricity, began using “urban waste” as the timber industry slowed down. That waste included demolished buildings trucked to the North State from the Bay Area.

Tests showed that resulting ash contained dioxins, including a huge pile that sat for some time off Hicks Lane in north Chico before it was recently hauled away to a landfill in Wheatland. But ash from the plant has also been used as a soil amendment in an orchard off Shippee Road in Durham and in corn fields in the Glenn County community of Artois. (BEC recently made a public records request for soil-test results from the area and were expected to receive those figures just after the CN&R’s press time.)

POPI’s New Jersey-based owner, Covanta, is negotiating for out-of-court settlements for dioxin and heavy-metals contamination in several California counties. The action is being led by Butte County Deputy District Attorney Hal Thomas, who specializes in environmental law.

The BEC effort has led to the formation of the Oroville Dioxin Education Committee (ODEC), whose goal is to “educate and prepare community members, to raise awareness, and to lead the effort to safeguard our community against dioxin,” according to a BEC press release.

Thomas, who couldn’t talk specifically about the Covanta case, said he supports BEC’s work in Oroville. “I’m very happy with what they are doing,” he said. “It is great for public health.”

Stemen, who is a professor of geography and planning at Chico State, said that it’s important to recognize that “environmental harms are not distributed equally.”

“Some populations suffer more than others,” he said. “I think if you were to look at Butte County, you would find that the 95965 zip code [in Oroville] probably has more toxic waste than the rest of Butte County. I think the long-term success will be from those people organizing for themselves and fighting for the land they stand on.”