The U.S. EPA is working on new rules for the disposal of coal fly ash, which is the stuff left over when coal is burned at power plants. And not a moment too soon! For the past few weeks attention has been focused on British Petroleum’s devastating oil spill, but it wasn’t too long ago that a manmade lake holding 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry gave way in Tennessee and released a flood of coal ash that smashed through 300 acres of rural neighborhoods and into the Emory River.
Cleanup for the Tennessee disaster alone is estimated to total about $1.2 billion over the next few years and with about 900 other coal ash landfills and liquid impoundments peppered across the U.S., that’s a lot of expensive accidents waiting to happen. The race is on for EPA to establish some kind of order in what has been a regulatory free-for-all.
The Problem with Coal Fly Ash
The problem with coal ash is, there is so darned much of it. About half the nation’s electricity is generated from coal, which in turn generates about 70 million tons of coal fly ash each year. As much as the coal industry has been touting “clean coal” technologies that would tidy up smokestack emissions, there is still the problem of ash disposal. Currently some of it is recycled as an amendment to concrete, asphalt, certain building materials and even farmland, but that leads to another problem…
The Other Problem with Coal Fly Ash
The other problem is that the disposal of coal fly ash is currently exempt from federal regulation. Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury and other pollutants in trace amounts but it is not classified as a hazardous waste by the EPA. That means there has been no federal requirement to mitigate, monitor, or otherwise manage whatever is leaching from the ash into soil, groundwater, or air from landfills, impoundments, or materials that contain recycled coal ash.
Proposed New Rules for Coal Fly Ash
The proposed rule would be the first federal regulation of coal fly ash and EPA has started up the process by focusing only on impoundments and landfills, not on recycling. The agency is offering two options, based on two different parts of its authority under the 1976 Resource Recovery and Conservation Act. Under Subtitle C, EPA could come up with federal standards for coal fly ash management and disposal. In terms of enforcement, violators would be subject to federal fines. Under Subtitle D, EPA would set performance standards for coal fly ash facilities, and woe betide any who fall short: instead of federal fines, violators would face civil lawsuits.
Whether ‘Tis Better to Impound or to Recycle
Psst – the answer is recycle. Subtitle C would essentially force fly ash impoundment facilities out of business over time by classifying ash as a “special” waste (meaning not hazardous in small quantities). Subtitle D would pretty much accomplish the same thing because it would require existing facilities to be emptied out and retrofitted with liners and anything else needed to prevent leaching – the idea being that if you’re going to go through all the trouble of taking the stuff out, why bother putting it back in, especially if a recycling opportunity exists. In either case, all that ash has to go somewhere, at least until coal itself is marginalized as a source of energy. EPA’s current position is that it “supports the legitimate beneficial use of coal combustion residuals,” which seems to hint that the agency may take a closer regulatory look at coal ash recycling safety issues somewhere down the road. For now, though, EPA is narrowly focused on phasing out impoundments and averting another Tennessee-style disaster.
Image: Coal ash by rankingranqueen on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.