Friday, Jun 28 2013 02:15 PM

PG&E takes down smokestacks as part of power plant demolition

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    PG&E personnel and local media tour the old power plant on Coffee Road near Rosedale Highway to see the progress of the demolition of the plant. Explosive devices are planned to be used around mid-January to bring down the two boilers of the power plant that was built in the 1940s.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is reporting fresh progress in its efforts to bring down the old Kern Power Plant at Coffee Road and Rosedale Highway.

The San Francisco-based utility said it pulled down four 140-foot-tall smokestacks this week, and that last week it tore down four steel fuel tanks at the 120-acre site.

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In addition to the blight of an unused above-ground plant at Coffee and Rosedale, there's the separate issue of an underground toxic chemical plume widely believed to have migrated to the PG&E site from the former Sunland Refinery.

The plume includes MTBE, a suspected carcinogen used as a fuel additive in gasoline; and benzene, which among other things is used as a constituent in motor fuels.

The oil refinery just west of the plant at Coffee Road and the Santa Fe Railroad closed in 1995 after a gas explosion killed a passing motorist.

The following year, owner World Oil installed vacuum-like vapor extraction wells that suck evaporated gasoline ingredients from the soil. It also put in an air sparging system that injects air into groundwater, making contaminates easier to remove.

"World Oil has been working for many years on remediation efforts on site, and as recently as May of this year, the state water board that has been overseeing that effort commended our progress," said spokesman Steve Sugarman. "We're going to continue to do that work and to monitor the groundwater there, as required by the water board."

One of the big hurdles to redeveloping the PG&E site is that some fear disturbing the ground there will further destabilize a plume that already is on the move.

The underground plume has migrated about a half mile from the old Sunland site to PG&E's property and beyond, said Lonnie Wass, supervising engineer with the State Water Resources Control Board. It's moving northwest, but "it doesn't appear to be threatening groundwater at this time," he said.

Ironically, the drought that until last year was the bane of Kern County's critical agriculture industry is partly what has kept the area's drinking water safe from harm. The aquifer fell rapidly as water stored there was tapped and not replaced.

The contaminants "seem to be contained in the upper soil or the top groundwater," said Tim Treloar, district manager for the California Water Service Co. "We usually go down 350 to 500 feet to draw our water, so we're well below that."

But last year, Kern County had a close to normal rain year. At some point, the aquifer will rise again. The question is, will the PG&E plant and the land around it be mitigated before that happens?

PG&E gives World Oil access to its property to test wells and otherwise monitor the movement of the plume. According to a semi-annual report filed with the state last year, the company also dug new, deeper wells on its own initiative after the water table dropped below the depth of its existing wells.

Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard isn't mollified.

"Every time it rains, that water trickles down to the plume and pushes it down," he said. "If that plume hits our water table, that has very, very significant consequences. They need to excavate and get rid of it, or at least put a cap on it that's impermeable."

That level of cleanup likely would fall to World Oil, not PG&E.

-- Courtenay Edelhart

Next in line for demolition: the plant's boiler structures, which previously contained asbestos. The company says all asbestos has been removed this year. A PG&E spokeswoman noted in a company blog Thursday that it plans to implode the boiler structures in mid-August.

"It's great. It's coming along," she wrote, quoting Tom Allen, the director of new generation construction who is supervising the demolition work.

The power plant closed for good in 1995 after operating from 1948 to 1985, when it went on "stand-by" status.

This summer, the company plans to conduct soil and groundwater testing at the site. That work became necessary after investigative work in the early 2000s indicated that "some soil had been contaminated by limited metals and petroleum hydrocarbons," spokeswoman Tracy Correa wrote in her blog post.

PG&E has been working to prepare the site for sale and redevelopment. Previous arrangements to sell the property have fallen through.

Thursday's blog post states that the company expects to continue environmental remediation of the site into next year.

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