Few industry debates are as bitterly divisive as that over Coal Combustion Residuals, but there is one thing on which friends and foes agree: It is high time for the Environmental Protection Agency to act.
The groups—and nearly a half-million individuals and organizations who have submitted comments—have been waiting since June 2010 for the EPA to finalize its Proposed Rule for Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals [CCRs] from Electric Utilities.
Citizens for Recycling First
|About 136 million tons of coal ash was produced in 2008, according to the American Coal Ash Association. About 44 percent of it was recycled.|
At the heart of that proposal is a decision critical to the coatings industry: whether or not to designate CCRs for the first time as “hazardous waste” for purposes of disposal under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The ruling could affect every segment of the coatings industry, from specifiers to facility owners to suppliers to applicators.
However, despite multiple public hearings and more than 450,000 public comments submitted over the past 26 months, the EPA has repeatedly declined to issue a final rule—or even to estimate when it might do so.
On Tuesday (Aug. 21), the agency repeated a months-old statement: "EPA is aware of the concerns around coal ash management and disposal, and the agency is committed to protecting people's health and the environment in a responsible manner." The agency said it would "finalize the rule pending a full evaluation of all the information and comments the agency received on the proposal."
EPA’s indecision--some say stonewalling--has now angered parties on all sides of the issue, prompting several lawsuits.
The latest plaintiffs are the nation’s two largest producers of coal combustion products—and they, too, are demanding action.
Boral Material Technologies and Headwaters Resources, the two largest processors of coal power plant waste used in building materials, filed separate suits in late spring in an effort to force the EPA to act.
Then, on Aug. 14, the companies filed a brief in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, asking the court to set a three-month deadline for EPA’s final determination, according to the newsletter Inside EPA.
The companies contend that the EPA's delay “has created uncertainty in the beneficial use marketplace,” including among “architects and engineers.” This inaction, they say, has “direct, traceable negative impacts on the marketplace and, therefore, on Headwaters’ and Boral’s businesses,” the newsletter reports.
Coal Ash Debate
CCRs, also known as coal ash or coal slag, are used in a wide variety of building materials, abrasive blast media, pre-cast concrete, and other products used across the coatings and related industries.
Proponents say that coal ash strengthens many building materials and that reusing it keeps it out of landfills, thus benefiting the environment. Opponents consider coal ash damaging to the environment and public health.
EPA has long contended that CCRs are not hazardous—even drawing criticism from its own auditor general for its unflagging support of the material.
The Cost of Delay
Whatever EPA’s ultimate decision on CCRs, however, both sides argue that the rule's delay is making the situation worse.
Coal ash proponents say the open-ended threat of future regulation is hanging over the entire industry, and dampening its fortunes. In September 2011, a pro-coal ash group called Citizens for Recycling First petitioned the Obama to move forward on a decision, saying the unresolved controversy was damaging to the industry.
Proponents also say the uncertainty has reversed a decade of increased reuse and recycling of coal waste products, which it says is increasing the flow of CCRs to landfills and disposal ponds.
Coal ash opponents, meanwhile, are also fed up with the delay, although for a different reason. In April, a coalition of 11 environmental and public health groups, including the Sierra Club and Physicians for Social Responsibility, filed suit to force the EPA to act, saying that the agency's inaction was perpetuating the inappropriate use of a hazardous material.
The EPA has said it would finalize the rule in 2012, and the lawsuits seek to hold EPA to that promise with a court-ordered deadline.