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Market impacts for geosynthetics from the regulation of coal ash

Features, News | August 1, 2013 | By:

Authors’ note to readers: This is a fast-moving topic where situations change as time and political positions evolve. It is the authors’ intent to report on the current situation and implications “at the time of presentation [April 2013],” providing historical and background information to place the opinions and projections of the authors into context.


The Geosynthetic Materials Association (GMA) is a United States-based industry association with the goal of expanding the marketplace for geosynthetics. GMA provides a forum for consistent and accurate information to increase acceptance and promote the correct use of geosynthetics. Its activities center on five areas: engineering support, business development, education, government relations, and industry recognition.

Arguably, the most important of these activities is government relations. GMA has operated an active government relations program with a Washington, D.C., firm to pursue opportunities for geosynthetic materials. Working with this firm, GMA has conducted lobbying efforts and engaged not only congressional offices, but multiple agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior, Army Corps of Engineers, Council on Environmental Quality, and other federal and state agencies. In each case, the overall goal of the discussions was the same: to promote the use of geosynthetic materials as cost-effective, performance-enhancing, and environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional soil, sand, gravel, and clay as construction materials. Coal ash storage has been an important issue in this effort.

Coal ash storage site failures at a power facility in Kingston, Tenn., in December 2008, and in Oak Creek, Wis., in October 2011 and more than 50 other documented cases of groundwater contamination near coal ash storage facilities all relate to the EPA’s issuance of a notice of proposed rulemaking in June 2010. These proposed rules outline new regulations for the storage of coal ash that will require the use of geosynthetic materials and expand the geosynthetic market significantly.

This article will present pertinent facts on the existing marketplace, discuss the current status of the regulatory, legislative and governmental processes, and offer current opinions and projections on the potential effect of regulations on market size and impacts. The market growth will be reviewed in three segments: new site lining/barrier opportunities, capping and “normal” site closure opportunities, and large-scale site remediation and associated closures opportunities.

History and timeline

The geosynthetics market as a whole, and the geomembrane industry in particular, received its first large growth spurt with the 1976 U.S. congressional act known as RCRA (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act).

RCRA created regulations to manage the storage of both household and hazardous wastes. The regulations were issued in two sections: the first specific to material deemed hazardous waste, the second addressing solid waste. Hazardous waste has since become known as “subtitle C” type waste; and solid, or most commonly household waste, has become known by that specific section of the regulations as, “subtitle D.” An additional waste stream—known as construction and demolition waste or “C&D material”—is not regulated under RCRA but is addressed on a state-by-state or local regulatory basis.

The second significant regulatory impact on waste management occurred in 1980 when the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act—more commonly known as Superfund. Superfund was created to clean up uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. This regulation not only increased demand for geosynthetic materials but helped to spur a large growth in capping applications using geosynthetics as surface or near surface barriers to prevent rainwater infiltration.

Coal ash, its regulation, or lack thereof, in the U.S.

The proper place to begin this review is in 1980 with the passage by the U.S. Congress of what is known as the “Bevill Amendment,” named for former U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill (D-Ala.).

This law amended RCRA by adding section 3001(b)(3)(A)(ii), known as the Bevill exclusion, to exclude “solid waste from the extraction, beneficiation, and processing of ores and minerals” from regulation as hazardous waste under Subtitle C of RCRA. It also required the EPA to study the impact of coal ash on the environment. This study was completed and published in the Federal Register on May 22, 2000.

The study reported: “The Agency has concluded these wastes do not warrant regulation under subtitle C of RCRA and is retaining the hazardous waste exemption under RCRA section 3001(b) (3) (C). However, the EPA also determined national regulations under subtitle D of RCRA are warranted for coal combustion wastes when they are disposed in landfills or surface impoundments.”

However, the EPA determination for subtitle D regulation was not heeded and the absence of regulations of coal ash storage continued.

Consequently, just before 1 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 22, 2008, a dike at an 84-acre (0.34km2) solid waste containment area at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., containing coal fly ash slurry ruptured. An estimated 1.1 billion U.S. gallons (4,200,000m2) of coal fly ash slurry was released. Subsequent direct cleanup and remediation costs have been estimated at more than $1.3 billion.

This incident and other issues with groundwater contamination at or near coal combustion residual storage facilities have resulted in the EPA considering new regulation of coal ash storage and significant companion actions on the legal, federal, congressional, and multiple governmental fronts.

Following the Kingston spill, on June 21, 2010, the EPA issued a “proposed rule” for the regulation of coal ash storage. The proposed rule was actually at least three, perhaps as many as six, different regulatory schemes depending on how they were parsed. Two of them addressed coal ash as a solid waste, under RCRA subtitle D, or as a hazardous waste, using subtitle C. Further, an option described as “D prime” was also discussed.

The EPA held a series of nine public hearings on this topic. Volumes of comments, correspondence, and information were provided on this topic by participants across the range of the political spectrum.

(In the opinion of the senior author, the EPA overreached in the attempt to obtain classification for coal ash as a hazardous waste material. Further, the EPA did itself and the country a disservice by proposing multiple options rather than a single concise proposal.)

On Oct. 12, 2011, after a period of internal consideration, the EPA published a Notice of Data Availability (NODA) requesting additional comments and information on some selected topics pertinent to coal ash. The agency surveyed the operators and owners of coal-fired power generation facilities and received responses covering 240 facilities and 676 surface impoundments.

Of the units that have been rated, 50 (of the 676) have been given the designation of “high hazard.” This designation does not indicate a high probability of failure at a site; a site can receive a “high hazard” designation based on its location and its impact on the surrounding neighborhood or environment should a failure occur, even if the estimated chances of failure are small.

On Oct. 31, 2011, a failure occurred at a power generation facility owned by WE Energies, located on the shore of Lake Michigan in Oak Creek, Wis., south of Milwaukee. This event resulted in coal ash flowing into Lake Michigan.

According to a report published by the state of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the spill was the result of construction of a flue gas desulfurization (FGD) sediment retaining basin constructed over old coal ash deposits: “the FGD sediment basin would potentially be constructed in coal ash deposits. … During construction, ash deposits were found in the western portion of the FGD sediment basin. These deposits were removed and replaced with suitable soil in accordance with the contaminated materials management plan. However, a liner plan was not submitted [to the DNR] when ash deposits were discovered. … A significant component of the bluff collapse material appears to be the coal ash deposited in a ravine in the 1950s–1960s.”

Congress attempts to act

On Oct. 14, 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.2273–Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, also known as the McKinley bill because it was sponsored by U.S. Rep. David McKinley (R-W.V.).

On Oct. 20, 2011, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and co-sponsors introduced to the 112th Congress Senate resolution #1751, proposing legislation closely paralleling H.R. 2273: a modification of subtitle D of the RCRA regulations, essentially regulating coal ash as a nonhazardous, solid waste. Multiple versions of legislation and regulatory schemes existed during this period, and for several weeks the regulation of coal ash was an active component of the 112th Congress’s transportation bill; however, in the final negotiations, coal ash was dropped from that particular bill.

Subsequently, on Aug. 3, 2012, the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2012 (S.R.3512) was introduced in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Hoeven and 23 others (12 Republicans and 12 Democrats). This activity has been renewed during the current 112th Congress. Clearly, some form of regulation for coal ash disposal will be propagated either through the legislative or regulatory pathways.

Market size estimates

How much coal ash there is in existing storage facilities? How much coal ash is produced in the U.S.? And how will forthcoming regulations or legislation affect the North American geosynthetics marketplace?

Coal supplies approximately 45% of the annual demand for electricity in the U.S. It is estimated that 125 billion kg of coal ash is generated annually in U.S. Of this quantity approximately 43% is “beneficially reused” or recycled into applications such as concrete, wallboard, pavement, and other construction materials. Using an average bulk density for coal ash of 725km/m3 this equates to a volume of more than 172 million m3 per year total, with approximately 74 million m3 per year placed into long-term storage/landfill operations.

Assuming a facility height of 15m, an annual area of just under 500ha (1,235 acres) is needed for storage. While this is a large number, the underlying assumptions are critical to understanding the market effects, with estimates for the following factors at a minimum:

  • the number and capacity of existing facilities.
  • an accurate bulk density of the specific ash in question.
  • site selection, geotechnical, construction, and other issues relative to the height/depth of the ash storage piles.
  • additional land use and geometric concerns as well as a host of other factors, all highly variable.

Geosynthetics impact and market estimates

In calendar year 2001, the global demand for geosynthetics was $3.2 billion. This was distributed geographically: North America 42%, Europe 35%, Asia Pacific 16%, all others 7%. Global sales by product type: geomembranes 45%, geotextiles 22%, geogrids and high-strength fabrics 17%, erosion control materials 10%, drainage materials 6%. Global sales by application: pavement 25%, erosion control 8%, drainage 11%, barrier products 32%, stabilization and reinforcement 24%.

In calendar year 2010, the global demand for geosynthetics was $6.1 billion. This was distributed geographically: North America 40%, Europe 18%, Asia Pacific 21%, all others 21%. Global sales by product type: geomembranes 32%, geotextiles 32%, geogrids and high-strength fabrics 8%, erosion control materials 11%, drainage materials 17%. Global sales by application: pavement 18%, erosion control 13%, drainage 16%, barrier products 34%, stabilization and reinforcement 19%.


The combination of this information and data set into an estimate of the effects of regulation on the geosynthetic marketplace is complex.
Clearly, regulation will expand the marketplace significantly. A critical unknown is the regulatory activity for existing facilities, both those currently receiving coal ash and those no longer receiving ash. Generally these sites have not been “closed” as thought of in the context of geotechnical, geosynthetic, and environmental engineering.

It is likely that regulators will concern themselves with the fate of the sites where coal ash had been stored in the past. Consideration of the past performance of sites relative to groundwater contamination and the results of groundwater monitoring would lead one to anticipate regulation of older sites, even those that may not be currently accepting ash.

Another concern is the stigma attached with the potential designation of coal ash as a hazardous waste. During the recent short-term, beneficial use has declined and a designation of coal ash as hazardous waste would result in more materials diverted to landfill and storage operations.

Boyd Ramsey is chief engineer at the North American headquarters of GSE Environmental in Houston, Texas, He is the chairman of GMA’s executive council.

Andrew Aho is the director, technical markets—including the Geosynthetic Materials Association (GMA)—at the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), Roseville Minn.,


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