Coal Ash – little discussed but likely to have impacts

15 Oct 2010

The EPA is trying to decide whether to regulate ash from the combustion of coal as a hazardous or non-hazardous waste.  The decision is likely to have impacts far beyond those power plants that burn coal. This issue came into public focus in December of 2008, when a Kingston Tennessee TVA power plant’s coal ash earthen impoundment failed with dramatic results.  Over a billion gallons of coal ash were released into a river and the surrounding areas.

Coal ash is known to contain  arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, and many others constituents left over from the burning of coal by roughly 500 power plants nationwide.  Michigan has coal burning power plants and the Center for Public Integrity has mapped some 14 sites generating or disposing of coal ash in Michigan.

So, why the concern? Well, interestingly enough, it has been reported that regardless of the EPA’s  decision, the coal ash will be disposed of the same way – landfill liners, leak controls and groundwater monitoring at ash dumps. However, the power and construction industries express concern over characterizing coal ash as a hazardous waste.  They contend that such a characterization will result in less recycling of coal ash, which is already occurring as 44% of the Nation’s coal ash is used in concrete, blasting grit, wallboard and other construction materials.  Industry representatives testify that coal ash is comparable to earth and does not meet EPA’s criteria to be deemed hazardous and that such a designation could lead to the end of such recycling due to the stigma.

If industry is right, the cost of disposal will go up dramatically both due to the new requirements and the increased volume of material to be disposed (that was previously diverted), and the cost of construction will go up as virgin materials will be needed to replace the recycled stream of coal ash. Who is right? Only time will tell.  EPA’s comment deadline ends November 19th.

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