More than a year after 1 billion or so gallons of water polluted by ash spilled from a coal-burning power plant in Tennessee, the Obama administration is struggling to decide whether to declare such waste "hazardous."
Slapping a hazardous label on coal ash and other coal byproducts would trigger the writing of a federal disposal standard to replace a patchwork of state regulations. The standard could outright ban wet storage ponds -- such as the one that ruptured in December 2008 in Kingston, Tenn. -- and require landfill liners, leak controls and groundwater monitoring at ash dumps.
The industry also fears that the hazardous designation would kill an ash-recycling enterprise that the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) says generates $5 billion to $10 billion a year in revenue for coal-burning utilities. In 2008, about 60 million tons -- 45 percent of the 136 million tons of coal-combustion ash that the industry generated -- were used to fill abandoned mines, make concrete and shore up eroding highway embankments, according to the American Coal Ash Association.
The designation would also cause disposal costs to soar. Ken Ladwig, a senior program manager for EPRI, said a hazardous designation could raise the cost of ash disposal from $10-15 a ton to $150 per ton, a total of $10 billion to $15 billion more a year. And that estimate cost could balloon, he added, if the designation chokes recycling programs.
The American Society for Testing and Materials International, a coalition that sets material and building standards, warned U.S. EPA last month that it would not support the use of coal ash in concrete if the ash is declared a hazardous waste. "If a material is excluded from the standard, you're not going to be able to use it," said Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group.
Said Tom Addams, executive director of the coal ash group, "A hazardous determination would make builders reluctant to use coal ash not because of what it may contain, but because of tort activity. If litigation was filed on a national basis, it would be mind-boggling to see what the defense costs were."
But environmentalists pushing for the hazardous designation say the industry groups are trying to scare EPA away from protecting waterways and groundwater from arsenic, selenium and other heavy metals that leach from power plant ash. There is no evidence, they say, that the "beneficial use" of ash would stop with a hazardous-waste designation.
"I have never seen the first study or piece of data to substantiate the claim that there would be this stigma that would stop recycling of coal ash," said Jeff Stant, director of the Environmental Integrity Project's campaign for federal regulation of coal-combustion waste. "It's important to note that the people who have been making that claim are the ones who have a financial interest in not having the designation."