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Oroville's Incinerator: Source of Dioxin Concern

Why Dioxins are of Concern Locally: Covanta's Cogeneration Incinerator in Oroville

The Pacific Oroville Power Industries (POPI) cogeneration incinerator, owned by Covanta Energy, is located in South Oroville, which is one of the lowest income communities in our County and is made up of 30% ethnic minorities. Though originally designed to burn agricultural waste, the incinerator is under agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to sell it “renewable” energy, and has resorted to burning contaminated urban wood waste to produce this energy. The waste from this process often contains dangerous chemicals that are released into the air, water, and soil.

The cogeneration facility disposes of its waste ash in various locations, including as a soil amendment in local fruit and nut orchards. The Chico News and Review (July 5, 2012) reported that nearly 20,000 tons of fly ash from POPI was illegally dumped on land that sits atop federally designated wetlands. The ash there tested for dioxin at 459 parts per trillion, “well over the safety levels set by the World Health Organization.”

The initial tests that BEC commissioned on POPI’s incinerator ash found that it exceeded Environmental Screening Levels and California Human Health Screening Levels for 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (the most toxic congener of dioxins), and high levels of arsenic and other metals.

The incinerator was originally designed to burn agricultural waste, including rice straw, but when rice straw developed into a valuable commodity, the plant shifted to forest byproducts. According to Energy Justice, “‘Green’ biomass (like energy crops) is often a foot in the door for more toxic waste streams. Plants that start off burning ‘clean wood chips’ can easily turn to burning more contaminated fuels (which may be cheaper or even free), or get paid to take really dirty wastes like trash or tires. Economic pressures encourage use of these dirtier fuels.”And this is exactly what has happened at POPI. With the decline of the logging industry, the plant, which is under a price premium contract to sell “renewable” power to Pacific Gas & Electric, has resorted to urban wood waste. Much of this wood waste is coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, which ships construction and demolition waste out of their communities to the POPI plant in Butte County, ironically, as part of a “zero waste” program. Our community was never notified of the change (and Bay Area residents are also unaware), and this waste often contains dangerous chemicals that are released into the air, water, and soil.

We are particularly concerned about airborne contamination, however soil and water contamination are also at issue, as water picks up airborne contamination on its surface and carries it downstream. This issue is also near to BEC’s heart as one of our original campaigns early in the organization’s history was the successful stopping of a proposed coal fired plant on the very location on which the POPI plant now sits.