The Environmental Protection Agency on Aug. 30 kicked off the first of a series of public hearings on its proposal to regulate coal ash. Environmental groups and industry strongly disagree on how the coal byproduct should be regulated.

The EPA is considering adopting one of two alternatives. Under one, coal ash would be designated as a “special waste,” a subset of hazardous waste, under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This designation would trigger federal enforcement and would, environmental advocates say, generally provide better safeguards against people getting sick from exposure to chemicals that leave the ash when it is exposed to water. Those chemicals include arsenic, barium, chromium and selenium.

The other alternative, favored by industry, would designate coal ash as a non-hazardous waste under Subtitle D of RCRA. Industry groups such as the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the Portland Cement Association say designating coal ash as a special waste under Subtitle C would discourage beneficial-use recycling, which EPA has said it wants to encourage.

Andy O’Hare, PCA vice president of regulatory affairs, says his group believes that states are well-equipped to handle oversight of the treatment and handling of coal ash and that designating coal ash a “special waste” would create a stigma that would discourage its use in concrete.

In comments at the Arlington, Va., hearing, Nick Goldstein, general counsel for ARTBA, said that the practice of using coal ash to replace the amount of cement needed to make concrete has been an “environmental success story,” reducing greenhouse gas emissions of concrete producers by as much as 12.5 million to 25 million  tons annually, by EPA’s own estimates.

 “Because of the increased expense of handling a ‘hazardous waste,’ the producers of coal ash would be resistant to continuing providing it to concrete manufacturers,” he said.

But environmental advocates insist that the Subtitle D designation is too lenient. One of their chief concerns is that the non-hazardous waste designation would permit wet coal ash continue to be stored in impoundments, although the guidelines would require either upgrading or phasing-out of existing unlined ponds.

The more stringent option would require the phase-out of wet coal ash ponds seven years after the regulation would go into effect. A new study, jointly released by the Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice on Aug. 26, found that drinking-water contamination from coal ash impoundments is more pervasive than originally thought.

The groups say a total of 137 sites have been identified where concentrations of heavy metals exceed federal health-based standards for drinking water. The report concludes that states are not “adequately monitoring” the coal-combustion waste disposal sites and that the EPA “needs to enact strong new regulations to protect the public.”

The EPA will hold six more public hearings in different parts of the country and accept comments until mid-November.