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EPA Green-Lights 2 CCR Uses

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

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Abruptly breaking years of silence, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has newly affirmed as “beneficial” the two largest reuses of encapsulated coal ash: in concrete and in wallboard.

The agency announced Friday (Feb. 7) that it had developed a new methodology for evaluating encapsulated Coal Combustion Residuals (CCRs) from power plants.

That methodology has now determined that encapsulated CCRs recycled for concrete and wallboard "are comparable to virgin materials or below the agency’s health and environmental benchmarks," the EPA concluded.

Coal Ash
ACAA

About 20 million tons of CCRs annually are used in concrete, concrete products and gypsum panel products, according to the American Coal Ash Association.

The ruling, affecting nearly half of the coal ash now in use, is a major victory for the coal-ash industry and several key end users. More than 100 million tons of CCRs are generated each year in the United States alone, according to the EPA.

What Beneficial Means

"Beneficial use" is the reuse of CCR in a product to replace virgin raw materials that would otherwise be obtained through extraction.

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

Friday's decision applies only to encapsulated uses of CCR—those where they are bound in a product, such as in wallboard, concrete, roofing materials, and bricks. Later this year, the EPA plans to develop a conceptual model for unencapsulated beneficial uses of CCR—those where the material is in a loose or unbound particulate or sludge form.

Concrete made with fly ash Fly ash
ACAA

About 7.6 million tons of FGD gypsum are used in gypsum panel products each year. EPA has found this use beneficial.

The two largest encapsulated CCR uses reported by the American Coal Ash Association are fly ash used in concrete, concrete products and grout (11.8 million tons); and FGD gypsum used in gypsum panel products (7.6 million tons).

Together, these products make up nearly 50 percent of the total amount of coal combustion residuals that are beneficially used, ACAA says.

Tipping its Hand?

Although the EPA won't comment further, the new finding could signal the agency's current regulatory mindset as it prepares to decide whether to tighten regulation of CCRs.

The EPA says it will issue a decision this year on whether to regulate CCRs for the first time as hazardous waste—a proposed rule the agency introduced in June 2010.

Ash recycling chart
 

Continuing uncertainty about the regulatory fate of coal combustion residuals has sharply impacted recycling in recent years, the industry says.

That proposal lays out two possible options for the management of coal ash under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). One option would place CCR in the category of hazardous waste; the other would continue its current designation as non-hazardous.

What's at Stake

Health and environmental advocates are pushing for the "hazardous" designation. The EPA took up the CCR issue after the catastrophic 1.1 billion-gallon spill of coal fly ash slurry Dec. 22, 2008, at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill followed the rupture of an ash dike in a solid waste containment area.

Historically, however, the EPA has been a strong defender of the beneficial use of coal ash. The coal-ash industry and its clients say that the material is not hazardous and that deeming it so would kill the recycled-ash industry and its end-user markets.

And whatever cannot be reused must be landfilled or otherwise disposed of, they note.

Fly Ash in Concrete
Wikimedia Commons / KTrimble

The upper reservoir of Ameren's Taum Sauk hydroelectric plant was constructed of roller-compacted concrete that included fly ash from one of Ameren's coal plants.

Recycling of CCRs has been severely impacted by the Kingston spill and ensuing EPA proposal, the industry says. Recycling levels in 2012 were still below those of 2008, a year that capped eight years of steady growth.

Demanding Action

Meanwhile, the delays since the EPA proposed the CCR rule have united friends and foes on one thing: After nearly four years, a full slate of public hearings, and nearly a half-million public comments on the issue, they say, the EPA owes the public and industry a decision.

Groups on both sides of the issue have sued the agency in recent years to force a decision. In October, a federal judge ordered the EPA to act on the rule.

In a statement issued Monday, the agency said it was preparing to do so.

"In 2010, EPA proposed the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants under the nation’s primary law for regulating solid waste, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)," the statement said.

"These rules would ensure stronger oversight of the structural integrity of impoundments in order to prevent future accidents. EPA is committed to finalizing the proposed coal ash rule by Dec. 19, 2014."

New Analysis

The EPA followed its new methodology in evaluating the use of coal ash in concrete as a substitute for portland cement, and the use of flue gas desulfurization gypsum as a substitute for mined gypsum in wallboard.

The new Methodology for Evaluating Encapsulated Beneficial Uses of Coal Combustion Residuals "is intended to assist states and other interested parties with evaluating and making informed determinations about encapsulated beneficial uses of CCRs," the EPA said.

"Slightly more than half of coal ash is disposed of in dry landfills and surface impoundments," the EPA said. "The remainder of coal ash is used beneficially, as well as in mining applications."

   

Tagged categories: Abrasives; Coal ash; Coal slag; Concrete; EPA; Gypsum board; hazardous materials; Hazardous waste

Comment from Paul Mellon, (2/13/2014, 3:12 PM)

Excellent recap of the EPAs new position that allows the beneficial use of coal ash in concrete and wallboard since these products encapsulate the CCR waste from being in contact with people. As noted, coal slag abrasives and other unencapsulated uses of coal waste still await a decision by the EPA. Stay tuned.


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