Coal ash recycling stagnates given EPA limbo

The ratio of coal combustion byproducts being recycled for construction and other purposes has stagnated given lingering uncertainty about whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste.

This was the message that American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) Executive Director Thomas Adams shared with reporters Nov. 27 during a Washington, D.C. press conference.

Adams and ACAA member and communications coordinator John Ward were in town to release the association’s “Production and Use Survey.” After nearly hitting 45% in 2008, the percentage of ash recycling has plateaued and remains well below the 50% recycling level that many had expected to achieve by 2012, Adams said.

Meanwhile, it now appears that EPA won’t issue a final coal ash ruling before the fall of 2013, Adams said. While Adams acknowledged that EPA has received many thousands of comments, the regulatory limbo is hurting recycling.

ACAA favors legislation, such as S. 3512, which would not treat the material as a hazardous waste but would require states to establish permit programs for coal combustion residuals.

‘Hazardous’ label could hurt ash recycling

Many construction-related projects across the country are already spooked by the idea of using any material that might be branded “hazardous,” Adams said. This is bad news for the multi-billion-dollar ash recycling business, Adams said.

“We are not seeing any capital flowing into the market to allow new uses,” of recycled combustion material, Adams said.

“You can’t just start using ash tomorrow,” Ward said. This takes expensive equipment that can run into the millions of dollars, Ward said.

After nearly a decade of growth, coal ash recycling has stalled since the December 2008 collapse of a coal ash storage facility at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant in Tennessee. The disaster, which destroyed several homes, and sparked heavy litigation and cleanup costs, also drove EPA to again consider regulating coal combustion residue as a hazardous waste.

“Ash recycling has leveled off,” Adams said. “The ongoing regulatory uncertainty and a drumbeat of misleading publicity about the safety of coal ash are combining to impede the beneficial use of the material. The loser, unfortunately, is the environment as millions more tons of coal ash needlessly wind up in landfills,” Adams said.

According to ACAA’s new survey,” 43.50% of the 130.1 million tons of coal ash produced in 2011 was beneficially used. That recycling rate is a slight uptick from 42.50% in 2010, but still below the 44.53% utilization rate charted in 2008.

Ash utilization also remained down in absolute terms. At the 2008 peak, 60.6 million tons of coal ash was recycled. In 2011, utilization was 4 million tons lower at 56.6 million tons. “If the past three years had simply remained equal with 2008’s utilization, we would have seen 14.2 million tons less coal ash disposed in landfills and impoundments,” said Adams.

Adams said coal ash does not qualify as a “hazardous waste” based on its toxicity and that the trace levels of metals in coal ash are similar to the levels of metals in the materials coal ash replaces when it is recycled. An ACAA study released in June 2012 analyzed recent U.S. government information to show that coal combustion ash is no more toxic than common dirt.

Coal ash reduces the need to manufacture cement, resulting in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. About 11 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions were avoided by using coal ash to replace cement in 2011 alone.

Major uses of coal ash include concrete, gypsum wallboard, blasting grit, roofing granules, and a variety of geotechnical and agricultural applications.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.