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Fly ash rightly averts hazardous label

True to a consent decree deadline finalized in federal court a year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency capped five-plus years of rulemaking on coal combustion residuals (CCR) management and disposal in late 2014, tabling a contentious measure that would have hampered ASTM C618 fly ash specifications and prospects.

Avoidance of a “hazardous waste” label applicable to landfill-bound CCR, but certain to stigmatize concrete-grade fly ash, owes to a broad-based awareness campaign challenging the EPA’s proposed “Identification and Listing of Special Wastes; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) from Electric Utilities” rule. Armed with indisputable market data and scientific facts, American Coal Ash Association led the effort and was joined by allies throughout the concrete, cement, civil engineering and public transportation agency communities. Stakeholders flooded the agency with comments detailing the harm an onerous rule would have on CCR recycling, the best example of which is ASTM C618-grade product.

“The regulatory uncertainty that has impeded the beneficial use of coal ash for half a decade has come to an end,” affirms ACAA Executive Director Thomas. “EPA’s decision to regulate coal ash as a ‘nonhazardous’ material puts science ahead of politics and clears the way for beneficial use to begin growing again.”

Demand for recycled coal ash has been harmed by uncertainty surrounding the rulemaking EPA initiated in June 2009. The agency’s proposed rule offered two options for CCR classification under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the primary law for regulating solid waste: Subtitle D, tasking states with significant coal ash handling, storage and disposal oversight; and, Subtitle C, inviting “hazardous waste” labeling of landfill-bound ash and federal agency scrutiny of material management and disposal. The latter option sparked concern among cement and concrete interests over the stigma fly ash would carry as a material with essentially the same chemical properties as one EPA labeled hazardous. ACAA and allied groups endorsed aspects of the Subtitle D option, the course EPA ultimately chose.

Fallout from agency actions leading to the final CCR rule are reflected in ACAA’s most recent “Production and Use Survey,” tracking downward coal ash utilization trends from 2009-2013. “In 2000, when the use volume was 32.1 million tons, the EPA issued its Final Regulatory Determination that regulation of ash as a ‘hazardous waste’ was not warranted,” Adams explains. “Over the next eight years, EPA also began actively promoting the beneficial use of coal ash and the use volume soared to 60.6 million tons.”

In its final CCR rule, released days after ACAA announced 2013 survey results, EPA supports the responsible recycling of coal ash by distinguishing safe, beneficial use from disposal. Recycling can produce positive environmental, economic and performance benefits, the agency affirms—among them reduced use of virgin resources and CCR disposal rates; lower greenhouse gas emissions; plus, improved strength and durability of concrete and other materials.

A review of beneficial CCR use coinciding with the EPA rulemaking process reconfirmed what Adams notes has been learned through decades: “Coal ash use is safe and should be encouraged. Millions of tons will continue to be generated in the U.S. every year. With disposal regulations finally settled, we can refocus energy on productively using those large volumes of materials.”

That sentiment informed a campaign to counter a regulation where the letters C and D had real implications for concrete tailored to performance and green building specifications, and federal versus state authority was fittingly called into question. ACAA and its allies earn an A for campaign substance, execution and success.