EPA confirms fly ash’s concrete suitability, benign chemical profile

Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; American Coal Ash Association, Farmington Hills, Mich.; CP staff

Five years after proposing potentially onerous regulations for coal combustion residuals (CCR) management and disposal—triggering an uproar across the concrete industry regarding ASTM C618-grade fly ash marketability—EPA has released an evaluation of recycled CCR almost certain to put lingering concerns to rest.

In early-February, the agency released an evaluation concluding that the two largest beneficial uses of CCR, concrete and wallboard, are appropriate because they are comparable to the virgin materials substituted—portland cement and mined gypsum—or below the agency’s health and environmental benchmarks. Concrete and wallboard account for nearly half of beneficially used CCR volume. “The protective reuse of coal ash advances sustainability by saving valuable resources, reducing costs, and lessening environmental impacts, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” says EPA Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response Assistant Administrator Mathy Sanislaus.

EPA developed Methodology for Evaluating Encapsulated Beneficial Uses of Coal Combustion Residuals, posted here, to assist states and other interested parties with making informed determinations about ash recycling, management, handling and disposal guidelines. “We appreciate EPA’s effort in conducting this thorough evaluation of the safety of coal ash use,” notes American Coal Ash Association Executive Director Thomas Adams. “This study reconfirms what we have learned through decades of successful beneficial use. Coal ash use is safe and should be encouraged. Using [it] instead of throwing it away benefits our environment and economy in myriad ways.”

EPA’s study was released as the Agency also moved to conclude a protracted coal ash disposal rulemaking that created regulatory uncertainty for many ash users. Pursuant to a consent decree in federal court, EPA has established a December 2014 deadline to finalize ash disposal rules, and strongly signaled it will avoid any “hazardous waste” designation attending one of two options proposed in its initial June 2009 rulemaking notice.  

“While headlines have dwelled on coal ash disposal regulation proposals over the past five years, the beneficial use of coal ash in products like concrete has received insufficient attention,” observes Kirk Benson, chairman of Utah-based Headwaters Inc., the largest manager and marketer of fly ash and other coal combustion products. “[EPA’s] study refocuses on this important use and reassures communities that it is perfectly safe.

“During the period of regulatory uncertainty, neither the EPA nor environmental groups have doubted the many environmental benefits from the beneficial use of fly ash. We are pleased this rigorous study by EPA confirms its benefits and paves the way for growth in beneficial use.”

Benson noted that the study utilized extremely conservative and, in some cases, unrealistic test methods and assumptions; even under such conditions EPA found that the studied applications are safe for human health and the environment. Methodology for Evaluating Encapsulated Beneficial Uses of CCR and consent decree announcement, he adds, “Position 2014 as a pivotal year for the beneficial use of coal combustion products. Regulatory certainty combined with strong statements of support will help us grow the beneficial use of coal ash—safely keeping the material out of disposal facilities, creating economic and environmental value.”