Regulatory uncertainty drives coal ash recycling to fourth straight year of decline

Coal ash recycling in the U.S. was off 4.7 million tons in 2012 against the prior year, according to the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) “Production and Use Survey” released last month. Ash utilization has stalled after nearly a decade of growth of a practice that conserves energy and natural resources, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and safely keeps ash out of landfills and disposal ponds.

The ACAA survey indicates that 51.9 million tons of coal combustion products (CCP) were beneficially used in 2012, down from 56.6 million tons in 2011 and well below the 2008 peak of 60.6 million tons. In the closely watched category of fly ash used in concrete, utilization remained level at 11.8 million tons, up by only 44,000 tons over 2011 and still below 12.6 million tons in 2008. The association attributes the drop to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—proposed regulations that could designate coal ash as “hazardous waste” when disposed. Consequently, growing numbers of ash producers, specifiers and users have restricted coal ash use in light of the regulatory uncertainty and publicity surrounding EPA’s activities.

“Although we are encouraged by recent EPA statements that the Agency currently thinks ‘non-hazardous’ coal ash disposal regulations are appropriate, the protracted debate continues to impede recycling,” says ACAA Executive Director Thomas Adams. “People don’t just wake up one day and decide to recycle more. It takes planning and investment that are difficult to justify in an environment of regulatory uncertainty and misleading publicity about the safety of coal ash. The loser, unfortunately, is the environment as millions more tons of coal ash needlessly wind up in landfills.

“The irony of the lengthy debate over coal ash disposal regulations is that the debate is causing more ash to be disposed. If the past four years had simply remained equal with 2008’s utilization, we would have seen 25.9 million tons less coal ash deposited in landfills and impoundments.”

The decline in recycling volumes stands in stark contrast to the previous decade’s trend, he notes: “In 2000, when the recycling volume was 32.1 million tons, the EPA issued its Final Regulatory Determination that regulation of ash as a ‘hazardous waste’ was not warranted. Over the next eight years, EPA also began actively promoting the beneficial use of coal ash and the recycling volume soared to 60.6 million tons.”

Recycling stalled after 2008 as EPA reopened its coal ash regulatory agenda following the failure of a coal ash disposal facility in Tennessee. “Supporters of a ‘hazardous waste’ designation for coal ash disposal like to say that higher disposal costs will lead to more recycling. This real world evidence, coupled with the growing list of people ceasing the use of coal ash, completely contradicts that simplistic argument,” Adams affirms.

Coal ash does not qualify as a “hazardous waste” based on its toxicity, he adds, noting that the trace levels of metals in coal ash are similar to the levels of metals in the materials coal ash replaces when it is recycled.