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EPA Deems Coal Ash Non-Hazardous

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

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In a decision widely viewed as a victory for the coal industry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled a final rule that classifies coal combustion residuals (CCRs) as solid—not hazardous—waste.

Furthermore, millions of tons of coal ash that are "beneficially reused" in concrete, wallboard and other products will continue indefinitely to be exempt from regulation.

But coal disposal impoundments and landfills are in for some changes and increased oversight.

American Coal Ash Association

With 110 million tons of Coal Combustion Residuals generated each year in the U.S., stakeholders on all sides of the disposal issue were demanding a decision.

Those highlights mark the EPA's long-awaited 745-page prepublication version of Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities Final Rule, released late Friday (Dec. 19) at the tail end of a court-ordered deadline set a year ago.

The measure, pending since June 2010, establishes the first national regulations for the safe disposal of coal ash from power plants.

The high-stakes decision carries significant implications for the coatings, construction and abrasive blasting industries, where CCRs are widely used.

The Basics

The Final Rule, which takes effect six months after publication in the Federal Register, establishes a comprehensive set of requirements for the disposal of CCRs under the solid-waste provisions (Subtitle D) of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

In its 2010 Proposed Rule for Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals [CCRs] from Electric Utilities, EPA had also floated the option of categorizing CCRs for the first time as hazardous waste under Subtitle C, which would have necessitated major cost, disposal, policy, safety, health and usage changes across the industry.

While the Final Rule sets standards for impoundments (for wet coal-ash disposal) and landfills (for dry disposal), and will likely close some facilities that do not meet those standards, the agency maintained its historical view that the 110 million tons of coal waste generated in the U.S. each year by more than 470 power plants are not hazardous.

Nor does the new rule regulate the approximately 40 percent of CCRs that are "beneficially used," and a new definition clarifies the difference.

TVA spill TVA spill
Hohum (left); TVA (right) / Wikimedia

The issue of Coal Combustion Residual safety gained urgency in December 2008 with the catastrophic coal fly ash slurry spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant. Cleanup is not yet complete.

Still, changes for all stakeholders are in store.

Why Regulate

Coal ash includes fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag and flue gas desulfurization material. Coal ash is the second-largest source of industrial waste, after mining waste, in the United States.

"Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic associated with cancer and various other serious health effects," the EPA says.

Physicians for Social Responsibility says the "toxic substances found in coal ash can inflict grave damage to the human body and the environment."

The EPA's new regulations are designed to prevent another catastrophic failure such as the one that triggered the regulatory review: the December 2008 spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant, which dumped 5.4 million cubic yards of coal fly ash slurry across more than 300 acres of land and river.

The cleanup from that disaster is still not complete.

Where It Goes

About 40 percent of the CCRs generated in 2012 were "beneficially reused," primarily in fly ash concrete and FGD gypsum, according to EPA. The rest required disposal.

Catawba Riverkeepers / Nancy Pierce

Unlined coal ash impoundments threaten the Catawba-Wateree River, according to the Catawba Riverkeepers. EPA's new coal-ash rule contains requirements for structural integrity design and inspection as well as groundwater monitoring of disposal units.

About 80 percent of CCR disposal occurs on site, in landfills averaging more than 120 acres and more than 40 feet deep, and in impoundments that average more than 50 acres and 20 feet deep.

EPA reports that "improperly constructed or managed" disposal units can contamine the air and groundwater, even when the facilities do not catastrophically fail.

New Requirements

To reduce the risk of such failures, the new rule establishes requirements for new and existing CCR landfills and surface impoundments, including lateral expansion of any unit. The rule spells out:

Structural Integrity. These include new design criteria; a requirement for periodic assessment of structural stability and inspections; and, for some impoundments, an emergency action plan. These begin six to 24 months after the rule is published.

Groundwater Monitoring and Corrective Actions. Beginning 30 months after publication, owners or operators of a CCR unit must install a system of monitoring wells and specify sampling and analysis procedures to detect the presence of hazardous constituents.

Location restrictions for new and existing facilities will kick in 18 months after publication. Facilities that cannot meet the requirements with alternatives or engineering enhancements must be closed.

Operating, Recordkeeping, Notification Criteria. New operating criteria and a variety of recordkeeping and compliance mandates will begin within six months of publication.

Greenpeace USA

The proposed coal-ash rule was the topic of heated public hearings, including Greenpeace protests, in 2010.

Inactive Units have three years to be dewatered, permanently covered and closed. The rule also includes new Closure and Post Closure requirements.

What 'Beneficial' Means

The new rule contains a detailed definition of "beneficial use" built on four criteria:

  • The CCR must provide a functional benefit;
  • The CCR must substitute for the use of a virgin material;
  • The use of CCRs must meet relevant product specifications, regulatory standards, or design standards when available and must not be used "in excess quantities" when no standards are available; and
  • The unencapsulated use of 12,400 or more tons of CCRs in non-roadway applications must be extensively documented.

More information is available in EPA's Fact Sheet and list of Frequently Asked Questions.

'Citizens Vulnerable'

The rule follows multiple public hearings, nearly a half-million public contents, and a host of lawsuits from stakeholders on every side of the issue. Friends and foes of coal ash had found rare agreement in their impatience for a decision by EPA. The uncertainty was hamstringing all stakeholders.

EPA Adminstrator Gina McCarthy said the rule's "strong safeguards will protect drinking water from contamination, air from coal ash dust and our communities from structural failures, while providing facilities a practical approach for implementation."


More than 470 power plants in the U.S. generate more than 110 million tons of coal combustion residuals each year. About 40 percent of that is beneficially reused.

Environmental groups generally disagreed.

The Sierra Club said the rule contained "some very important provisions" but "still leaves citizens vulnerable to a lot of risks associated with the way many utilities dispose of coal ash or maintain their waste sites."

Citing an EPA assessment, the Club's "Beyond Coal" Project says the risk of living near a coal-ash impoundment "is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day."

Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, one of the plaintiffs that had sued to force a decision, also said the rule fell short.

“Today’s rule doesn’t prevent more tragic spills like the ones we are still trying to clean up in North Carolina and Tennessee," she said.

"And it won’t stop the slower moving disaster that is unfolding for communities around the country, as leaky coal ash ponds and dumps poison water,” said Evans.

'Coal Ash Use is Safe'

The coal industry, on the other hand, was jubilant.

"The regulatory uncertainty that has impeded the beneficial use of coal ash for half a decade has finally come to an end,” said American Coal Ash Association executive director Thomas H. Adams.

“EPA’s final decision to regulate coal ash as a ‘non-hazardous’ material puts science ahead of politics and clears the way for beneficial use of ash to begin growing again—thereby keeping ash out of landfills and disposal ponds in the first place.”

“The study reconfirmed what we have learned through decades of successful beneficial use. Coal ash use is safe and should be encouraged.”


Tagged categories: Abrasive blasting; Coal ash; Coal Combustion Residuals; Coal slag; Construction; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Health & Safety; Laws and litigation; North America; Protective Coatings; Regulations

Comment from Paul Mellon, (12/23/2014, 8:14 AM)

I think it is important to make an important clarification about the new EPA CCR Disposal Rule as it relates directly to the Abrasive Blast Industry. The new EPA CCR Proposed Rule does not endorse Coal Slag Abrasives as part of their new Beneficial Use Program. The EPA makes it clear they are still evaluating the safety of Unencapsulated CCRs like coal slag abrasives and still are developing a Methodology to evaluate their safety especially from fugitive dust concerns. The EPA CCR Rule on Page 304 also specifically clarifies that EPA “ intends that the CCR disposal rule not preempt applicable OSHA standards designed to protect workers exposed to CCRs” The EPA only makes one specific reference to the safety of coal slag abrasives with this comment in their 745 page CCR Rule: Page 308 of EPA CCR Disposal Rule “…and in one case, OSHA imposed a steep fine on the owners of a facility manufacturing abrasive blasting and roofing materials from slag produced at a nearby coal-fired power plant, for willfully exposing their workers to dangerously high levels of hazardous dust, and for failing to provide adequate breathing protection and training for workers at the facility. According to stakeholder allegations, fugitive dusts generated by these same materials also adversely impacted residents in the facility’s immediate vicinity.” This is very important new information by the EPA on coal slag abrasives and their safety to human health. I recommend that all companies using or have workers exposed to coal slag abrasives advise their Industrial Hygiene departments to fully read the new EPA CCR Disposal Rule and make their own assessment.

Comment from Tony Rangus, (12/23/2014, 12:05 PM)

I guess if we take the comments from Lisa Evans and apply them literally, then the EPA needs to regulate volcanos, forest fires and mud-slides in California.

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