Coal ash recycling continues to slip, trade group reports

The amount of ash from coal power plants being recycled for use in concrete and building materials continues to slip as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers rules that would designate the material as “hazardous waste,” a trade group said Dec. 17.

Coal ash recycling in the United States declined by 0.5 million tons in 2013. For the fifth consecutive year, ash utilization remained below 2008 levels, the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) said in a news release.

The ACAA said in its annual state of coal ash recycling report that beneficial reuse of coal plant residues has stalled after nearly a decade of growth. The organization says that ash recycling reduces greenhouse gases and keeps ash out of landfills and disposal ponds.

The decline has occurred as EPA proposed coal ash regulations that could designate the material as “hazardous waste” when disposed, said ACAA Executive Director Thomas Adams said.

Growing numbers of ash producers, specifiers and users have restricted coal ash use in light of the regulatory uncertainty and publicity surrounding EPA’s activities, according to ACAA.

EPA faces a Dec. 19, 2014, deadline for finalizing its coal ash disposal rules. “Based on several public statements by EPA, we are confident that the Agency will choose a Subtitle D ‘non-hazardous’ regulatory framework,” Adams said. “That conclusion will be supported by decades of scientific study of the material characteristics of coal ash,” he added.

Adams hopes EPA’s final regulation will definitively close the book on the “hazardous” versus “non-hazardous” debate. “Regulatory certainty is imperative if we are to increase volumes of coal ash that are beneficially used rather than disposed,” Adams said. “People don’t just wake up one day and decide to recycle more. It takes planning and investment that are difficult to justify in an environment of regulatory uncertainty and misleading publicity about the safety of coal ash. The loser, unfortunately, is the environment as millions more tons of coal ash needlessly wind up in landfills,” he added.

51.4 million tons of coal residue recycled in 2013, ACAA reports

ACAA released its “Production and Use Survey” during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The report finds that 51.4 million tons of coal combustion products (CCPs) were beneficially used in 2013 – down from 51.9 million tons in 2012 and well below the 2008 peak of 60.6 million tons. In the closely watched category of fly ash used in concrete, utilization increased only slightly to 12.3 million tons, up by 577,705 tons over 2012, but still below 12.6 million tons in 2008.

“The irony of the lengthy debate over coal ash disposal regulations is that the debate is causing more ash to be disposed,” said Adams. “If the past five years had simply remained equal with 2008’s utilization, we would have seen 26.4 million tons less coal ash deposited in landfills and impoundments.”

The decline in recycling volumes stands in stark contrast to the previous decade’s trend. “In 2000, when the recycling volume was 32.1 million tons, the EPA issued its Final Regulatory Determination that regulation of ash as a ‘hazardous waste’ was not warranted, ACAA said. Over the next eight years, EPA also began actively promoting the beneficial use of coal ash and the recycling volume soared to 60.6 million tons,” Adams said.

Recycling stalled after 2008 as EPA reopened its coal ash regulatory agenda following the failure of a coal ash disposal facility at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston power plant.

Ironically, TVA announced Dec. 17 that it has virtually completed the elaborate cleanup of the Kingston coal ash spill in Roane County, Tenn.

“Supporters of a ‘hazardous waste’ designation for coal ash disposal like to say that higher disposal costs will lead to more recycling. This real world evidence – coupled with the growing list of people ceasing the use of coal ash – completely contradicts that simplistic argument,” Adams said.

Analysis of historic production and use data reaffirms that the recent decline in coal ash recycling is largely attributable to regulatory uncertainty and not general economic trends, ACAA said.

“In previous economic downturns, we actually saw fly ash utilization increase as concrete producers sought less expensive materials in an effort to reduce costs,” said Adams. “That did not happen in our most recent economic downturn as regulatory uncertainty trumped economic incentives,” he added.

ACAA, founded in 1968, says a number of different types of coal combustion residue have a useful economic after-life. Fly ash is used in concrete foundations, slabs, counter tops, masonry units and carpet backing. Bottom ash is used in masonry units; boiler slag is used in roofing shingles and gypsum from flue gas desulfurization (FGD) scrubbers is used in wallboard, ACAA notes.

EPA on Feb. 7, 2014, released an extensive study re-affirming support for two major uses – fly ash in concrete and FGD gypsum in wallboard. EPA had also issued a “final determination” in 2000 that CCP does not warrant regulation as hazardous waste.

ACAA says that with few exceptions constituent concentrations in coal ash are below screening levels for residential soils – in other words, it’s no more hazardous than typical dirt.

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.