Fly ash, chemical interests hold their ground in highway bill, LEED debates

Leading up to the MAP-21 legislation that will stabilize federal highway and bridge funding through fall 2014 (note page 8), Capitol Hill saw another sound challenge to the languishing coal ash rule the Environmental Protection Agency proposed two years ago. As concrete producers and allies know all too well, the agency’s “Identification and Listing of Special Wastes: Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) from Electric Utilities” includes an option that would classify impoundment- or landfill-bound coal ash as hazardous waste. Opponents correctly point to the highly negative effect that would have on market prospects for recyclable coal ash products, especially fly ash.

An amendment to the House bill behind MAP-21, “Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012, Part II,” curtailed EPA authority from regulating fly ash. It was based on the “Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act,” sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) and approved last October in a bipartisan 267–144 vote. The amendment was dropped late in House and Senate negotiations; still, the MAP-21 crafting brought lawmakers with coal and roadbuilding constituents a fitting opportunity to rein in EPA regulatory ambitions.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s fall 2011 study, “The Economic Impacts of Prohibiting Coal Fly Ash Use in Transportation Infrastructure Construction,” concludes that the absence of fly ash as a supplemental binding agent in concrete stands to cost taxpayers $100 billion over the next 20 years. Considering the federal budget deficit and limited Highway Trust Fund solvency, it made perfect sense that lawmakers scrambling for road and bridge dollars clear obstacles jeopardizing construction economy.

Looking beyond MAP-21, the American Coal Ash Association plans to join other “Coal Residuals Reuse” proponents in seeking Senate passage. ACAA strengthened the bill’s case early last month with the release of “Coal Ash Material Safety – A Health Risk-Based Evaluation of USGS Coal Ash Data from Five U.S. Power Plants” (note pages 14-15). Using EPA and U.S. Geological Survey data, the study’s author closes the case on the question of whether coal ash and hazardous waste belong in the same sentence.

Unfolding last month along side the new highway bill was a debate with strong parallels to the EPA-proposed rule, where raw material interests have to defend their products in the face of stigmas emanating from federal government-sanctioned rules or standards affecting building procurement. The U.S. Green Building Council announced a delay of its LEED 2012 green building rating system until next year, allowing time to address stakeholder concerns with the current draft, and a rebranding to LEED v4 (note page 19). The draft includes a section detailing voluntary credits, hence LEED rating points, under the Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern heading.

That could eliminate the use of dozens of approved materials and hundreds of proven products specified for energy efficiency in LEED certification candidate projects, contends the American Chemistry Council. “I am dismayed by comments USGBC already made that it intends to steadfastly retain ill-conceived measures to force builders and architects away from proven building products,” said ACC President Cal Dooley. “ACC and its members have considerable technical and practical expertise, and we are prepared to engage constructively to help USGBC develop science- and consensus-based performance standards that will advance the energy efficiency and sustainability of buildings.”

Chemical interests countering LEED v4’s inclusion of Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern might look to the ARTBA and ACAA model of spelling out the costs of needlessly hindering trade in a safe and widely used building material.