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Construction Hails Coal-Ash Rule

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

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Calling it "good news for taxpayers," builders and contractors are cheering a federal decision not to regulate fly ash and other coal waste as hazardous materials.

The jubilation followed the release of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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, paving materials, wallboard and other construction products will continue indefinitely to be exempt from regulation.

CoalAsh-ACAA
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.

'Unnecessary and Detrimental'

Coal and construction groups cheered the announcement.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) says the decision will save $105 billion over the next 20 years.

FlyAshConcrete
60 Bragg Hill
Fly-ash concrete is worked into the footers of a sustainable residential project called 60 Bragg Hill in Chester County, PA. Millions of tons of coal ash is recycled each year in construction materials.
 

ARTBA called the rule "good news for taxpayers," saying that the U.S. transportation construction sector recycles more than eight million tons of fly ash annually as a pavement additive.

The Associated General Contractors of America has worked for years against the hazardous designation, saying such a label "was unnecessary and would have an extremely detrimental impact on the future use of fly ash and raise liability concerns about its previous use."

“Our association and its members went to great lengths to make sure that EPA officials appreciated that the construction industry has successfully and safely used fly ash in concrete and other materials for over six decades," said AGC CEO Stephen Sandherr.

"And thanks in part to our efforts, they understand that allowing this recycling program to continue will address many of the disposal challenges the energy industry faces with fly ash.”

Meanwhile, American Coal Ash Association executive director Thomas H. Adams said the decision "puts science ahead of politics and clears the way for beneficial use of ash to begin growing again."

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.

CatawbaRiverImpoundment
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.

GreenpeaceProtest
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.

AGC notes that the new criteria may shift some previously approved uses, such as large-scale fill operations, from the category of reuse and into disposal. The association says it will continue to analyze the rule and advise its members.

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

Voicing Concerns

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.

PowerPlant
Sjo

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.

Still, the outcome did not please environmental groups.

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."

   

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

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