Construction industry groups praised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision not to designate coal ash, a byproduct of coal combustion from coal-fired powerplants, as a hazardous waste under the agency’s first regulations for coal-residuals disposal.
Instead, coal ash will be regulated under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act's Subtitle D, the primary law governing solid waste.
Since the catastrophic 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., and the Dan River spill in North Carolina in February 2014, much attention has been focused on establishing safeguards for preventing groundwater contamination and air emissions from coal-ash disposal.
Environmental and public health groups had pushed for categorizing coal ash, also known as fly ash, as a hazardous waste. That would have given EPA strong enforcement authority to penalize utilities that improperly disposed of coal ash.
But in announcing the new final rule on Dec. 19, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters that “the available data…really doesn’t make the case to support a hazardous waste designation.”
Construction industry groups have long said that designating coal ash as a hazardous waste, which has a different regulatory enforcement framework from solid waste disposal's, would be the death knell for commercial recycling, or beneficial re-use, of fly ash in concrete, asphalt, grout and other construction materials.
According to Thomas Adams, American Coal Ash Association executive director, over the past five years growing numbers of coal-ash producers, specifiers and users have restricted coal ash use because of the possibility that EPA could designate it as a hazardous material.
Stephen Sandherr, Associated General Contractors of America’s CEO, said in a statement that EPA's decision “preserves what is one of the most successful commercial recycling programs in use today….As a result, the construction industry will be able to continue to recycle an estimated 30% of these combustion byproducts each year.”
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association estimates that the cost to build roads, bridges and airport runways would have cost taxpayers an additional $105 billion over the next 20 years if fly ash were not available as a building material.
Under the new regulations, EPA will work with state agencies to implement the rule, McCarthy said. “These federal requirements will be a minimum standard,” and states will have the ability to go above and beyond the minimum, she added.
States will be encouraged to revise their solid-waste management plans and submit the revisions to EPA for approval. EPA approval of the plan will signal EPA’s opinion that it meets federal criteria.
The regulations require that surface impoundments and landfills that fail to meet engineering and structural standards no longer receive coal ash. They also mandate that liner barriers be installed for new units and surface impoundments and landfills that will no longer receive coal ash be closed properly.
The rules also will require regularly monitoring and immediate cleaning up contamination, and closingunlined surface impoundments that are polluting groundwater. Additionally, they will mandate that utilities install fugitive dust controls to reduce windblown coal-ash dust.
Although environmental advocates expressed disappointment that the regulations were not as stringent as they would have liked them to be, they said that they provide some useful tools, such as having data publicly available.
Mary Ann Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, called the regulations a “modest first step.” But she added that the EPA rules “still leave people to largely fend for themselves against powerful utility interests that have historically ignored public health in favor of delayed action.”