Environment
2:24 pm
Mon February 10, 2014

EPA Concludes Recycling Coal Ash in Concrete, Wallboards is Safe

The Environmental Protection Agency is under deadline to finalize the country’s first-ever measures regulating coal ash by next December, and it’s considering two different options: one that would regulate the material as a hazardous material, and the other as a “special waste.” But last week, the EPA released the results of a study which could preview which way the agency is leaning:

The study found that coal ash is safe when recycled into concrete and wallboards.

EPA’s evaluation concluded that the beneficial use of encapsulated CCRs in concrete and wallboard is appropriate because they are comparable to virgin materials or below the agency’s health and environmental benchmarks.

These two uses account for nearly half of the total amount of coal ash that is beneficially used. 

“The protective reuse of coal ash advances sustainability by saving valuable resources, reducing costs, and lessening environmental impacts, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

Small amounts of coal ash have been recycled—or what the utility companies call “beneficially reused”--for years. And one of the coal industry’s main gripes with the EPA’s proposal to categorize coal ash as a hazardous waste is that the designation would effectively kill any chances of recycling the ash into building materials.

But in light of the most recent coal ash disaster—a spill of up to 82,000 tons of the material into the Dan River in North Carolina—environmental groups are pushing the agency to regulate coal ash as strictly as possible. And according to this article from Bloomberg News, at least one environmental lawyer (Abigail Dillen from non-profit Earthjustice) thinks that allowing coal ash recycling and strict regulation of the material could coexist.

Environmental groups have increased pressure on the agency to fulfill a pledge to regulate disposal of the waste, and they say EPA could still maintain the stricter approach.

“They could look at the Duke spill and say something more needs to be done,” said Abigail Dillen, a lawyer for environmentalists that pushed the agency to issue its rules. “As we’re watching this disaster play out in North Carolina, it points out why a state” system isn’t good enough, she said.

The spill at the Duke plant leaked an estimated 27 million gallons of water and 82,000 tons of ash into the Dan River since Feb. 2.

Dillen, who praised the recycling decision, said the agency must now develop limits on the use of coal ash for other purposes, such as salting roads in the winter or filling up berms or old coal mines.

“They call it a beneficial use, which exempts it from regulation,” she said.

According to the American Coal Ash Association, nearly 110 million tons of coal ash was produced in the U.S. in 2012, and about 47 percent of that was re-used. The rest was disposed of in landfills and ponds.