What is Coal Ash?
Coal combustion residuals (CCRs), commonly referred to as coal ash, are the residue or detritus from the combustion process of coal-fired power plants, and are disposed of in a liquid form in impoundments or landfills.
After the coaled is burned, this residual material can contain arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, and other heavy metals, posing a challenge when it comes to safe CCR disposal.
But a type of ash waste, known as “fly ash” can also be reused in various ways, the most notable being filler for concrete. Fly ash-containing concrete can save on the necessary water and oil, and cut back on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions in the process to create the concrete.
Currently, CCRs are unregulated—they are considered an exempt waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
A potential danger of coal combustion residuals to the environment includes leaching of these hazardous toxins into the air, land, and groundwater from ash mounds and landfills. When this happens, especially when it contaminates groundwater (which comprises about 50% of the nation’s drinking water supplies), health problems are a serious and immediate risk. These can potentially include for those who are exposed, developmental disorders, reproductive issues, and cancer.
This is exactly what happened in at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22, 2008, where failures to implement proper safety measures led to an environmental disaster. It occurred when the earthen wall of a giant on-site ash disposal pond broke and let spill over 1 billion gallons of ash-slurry into the nearby Clinch and Emory rivers.
EPA officials have said that the cleanup at Kingston is still on-going and will likely last at least until the end of the year. This cleanup has been costed at $1.2 billion. Other similar accidents, like the recent Duke Energy coal ash spill of February 2014, which leaked into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina, have since followed.
Two Sides of the Regulatory Coin
Coal ash was once on the docket for legislation in 2011, but was shot down by Republicans for what they saw as the potential for layoffs in the industry and the rise of compliance costs for utilities.
But spurred by many environmental groups in 2013, and as a direct result of the Kingston accident (and others since), as of January of this year, the EPA has commenced to agree upon regulations concerning the disposal of coal ash and also coal plant water pollution. By December 19th, 2014, the EPA has been court-ordered to finalize these regulations.
Concerning the handling and disposal of coal combustion residuals, two proposals may possibly be chosen by the EPA.
Both options involve amendments to RCRA, but one option would treat CCRs as a hazardous substance, and the other would see that coal ash continues to be considered a non-hazardous material, albeit with a level of nominal oversight and supervision.
Subtitle C Option
The first proposal would categorize coal combustion residuals under Subtitle C of RCRA, which would treat the them as a hazardous waste, and would therefore allow the EPA to enforce the cycle of coal ash, cradle-to-grave. Safety requirements, permits for handlers of CCRs, transportation guidelines, and all the concerns that go along with hazardous waste would be applied to the disposal of ash residuals.
Under Subtitle C, fines could be meted out for non-compliance; and spills, like the one at Kingston, could be avoided by forcing companies to use effective safety measures, such as protective liners for ash-pits.
Subtitle D Option
The second proposal would see that coal ash is lumped into Subtitle D, as an ordinary, non-hazardous waste. Among the other regulatory statutes governing it would be non-toxic household wastes if grouped in Subtitle D.
The EPA would have no jurisdiction to legally enforce any rules, as a Subtitle D scenario would see only that broad suggestions (and not laws) are stated as to the correct storage of CCRs, but not their generation, treatment, or transportation. The EPA would have no recourse to ensure that anyone follows (what in essence would merely be) its recommendations, nor would it be able to intervene on its own behalf in matters of public safety regarding coal ash disposal.
So whether you are a plant operator or are part of an environmental safety group, expect to see some changes soon if you deal with coal ash.
Whatever the verdict come December, the outcome will be the climax in a years-long struggle on both sides of the regulatory curtain. The decision reached by the EPA is sure to have far-reaching implications for everyone involved.
If you would like more information on the upcoming regulation of coal ash disposal, or you would like to learn more about hazardous waste regulation or disposal, call us at (800) 936-2311 — we’d be glad to assist you.