Industry assesses fly ash designation measures, EPA Clean Power Plan

The U.S. House of Representatives passed “Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2015,” (H.R. 1734) in a bipartisan 258-166 vote. Sponsored by Rep. David McKinley, (R-WV), it codifies the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to regulate fly ash and other coal combustion residuals (CCR) under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) “solid” versus “hazardous” waste provisions.

The legislation would remove uncertainty about a potential change of agency position on CCR, and hamper future proposals or rulemaking attempts to apply RCRA provisions forcing utility operators to treat the materials as hazardous waste. Announced in late 2014 upon a federal court ordered deadline, the RCRA “solid” waste designation followed nearly five years of EPA review of a proposal establishing different handling and legal requirements for a) recyclable CCR, including ASTM C 618-grade fly ash; and, b) landfill-bound material, primarily bottom and storage pond ash.

“Every year we recycle more than 17 million tons of coal ash into concrete,” says Portland Cement Association CEO James Toscas. “We look at this as a great success story: less waste into landfills, less cost, and better concrete. This is a classic case of U.S. industries working together to benefit both the environment and the economy. EPA did the right thing in preserving the rules that allow this recycling, and the House did the right thing in ensuring that they continue to be preserved.”

On a related note, PCA closely tracked the Obama administration’s pursuit of regulating carbon dioxide emissions from power plants through a second wave of EPA Clean Power Plan actions. “These unprecedented regulations will have enormous impact,” Toscas affirms. “Everybody, including EPA, agrees that they will boost the cost of electricity, which in turn will increase the cost of making and using nearly everything. Higher costs hurt every American’s pocketbook, and mean fewer investments, fewer construction projects, and fewer jobs. Americans need to understand this.”

Unlike other emissions that have been regulated by EPA up to now, CO2 was not considered an air pollutant when Congress passed the Clean Air Act. However, because it has been associated with global warming, means have been sought to control industrial CO2 emissions, and the broad language contained in the Clean Air Act allows EPA to do so.

Industrial processes used to make electricity, cement, and other essential materials and commodities, and all forms of combustion, have always produced CO2. Industries have gradually reduced emissions during the past decade, primarily through improvements in energy efficiency and use of alternative fuels. To reduce carbon intensity to the degree sought by the new EPA regulations, however, an industry must either remove CO2 as part of its existing process or shift to a different, less CO2-intensive process.

Isolating the gas requires highly advanced and expensive sequestration technology, while utilizing a less carbon-intensive process requires massive investments in new plants, equipment, and technologies, some of which don’t exist today. “Making substantial reductions to CO2 emissions from our core industries will demand a tremendous amount of time, talent, money, and technology,” notes Toscas. “Diverting these precious resources within the timeframes specified in the regulations will strain the capacity of the U.S. economy. We’re concerned that the public may not recognize or be prepared for this.”

The new regulations are the first of an expected series of EPA rules regulating CO2 from core U.S. industries, including cement manufacturers. “Like electricity, cement has been at the foundation of modern society and is essential to our economy,” adds Toscas. “We use cement in concrete to build everything from boulevards and bridges to sidewalks and skyscrapers. Whatever impacts cement production impacts the entire economy.”

The cement industry takes environmental protection very seriously, and has made significant progress in reducing energy use and associated CO2 emissions through refinements in plant operations and technology. Of the 70 manufacturing facilities that achieved EPA Energy Star certification in 2014, 27 were cement plants. A Duke University study found a 13 percent improvement in U.S. cement plant energy efficiency for the 1997–2008 period.