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EPA: Coal ash is not hazardous waste

News | December 22, 2014 | By:

Opportunities for geosynthetic materials abound

The first national regulations regarding the disposal of coal combustion residuals (coal ash) were issued Dec. 19 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In its Dec. 19 press release, the Agency said: “The final rule establishes safeguards to protect communities from coal ash impoundment failures, [such as] the catastrophic Kingston, Tenn., spill in 2008, and establishes safeguards to prevent groundwater contamination and air emissions from coal ash disposal.”

In December 2008, the Kingston “spill” released an estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge that destroyed several homes and contaminated the Emory River in eastern Tennessee. The total clean-up costs are expected to exceed $1 billion.

Geosynthetics opportunities

The EPA ruling includes a six-point checklist of requirements for coal ash impoundments and landfills, including:

  • The closure of surface impoundments and landfills that fail to meet engineering and structural standards and will no longer receive coal ash.
  • Reducing the risk of catastrophic failure by requiring regular inspections of the structural safety of surface impoundments.
  • Restrictions on the location of new surface impoundments and landfills so that they cannot be built in sensitive areas such as wetlands and earthquake zones.
  • Protecting groundwater by requiring monitoring, immediate cleanup of contamination, and closure of unlined surface impoundments that are polluting groundwater.
  • Protecting communities using fugitive dust controls to reduce windblown coal ash dust.
  • Requiring liner barriers for new units and proper closure of surface impoundments and landfills that will no longer receive CCRs.

The EPA is requiring coal ash disposal in a manner consistent with Subtitle “D” of the RCRA (Resources Conservation and Recovery Act) that governs disposal of municipal solid waste. Additional benefits to the geosynthetic industry include approval for “alternative clay liners” (GCLs, geosynthetic clay liners) and rules governing capping and closure of both new and existing sites that mandate the use of composite liners for capping. (For more details on this aspect of the EPA rule, see Boyd Ramsey’s recent entry in the GeoBlog.)

State responsibilities

The EPA ruling also means that federal regulators won’t directly enforce the new regulations. The final rule means that states must now revise their Solid Waste Management Plans (SWMPs) and submit these revisions to the EPA for approval. “A revised and approved SWMP will signal EPA’s opinion that the state SWMP meets the federal criteria,” the EPA said.

Under the EPA’s final rule, new and existing ash ponds and landfills will face requirements that dozens of states nationwide have failed to put in place on their own-for example, routine groundwater monitoring and protective liners for all new containment facilities. The measure calls for regular safety inspections.

Other requirements call for closing ash ponds and landfills that fail to meet structural standards and that will no longer receive coal ash. The rules would also close any unlined ash ponds that had already contaminated groundwater.

Beneficial uses

The EPA press release also noted the recycling of coal ash by distinguishing safe, beneficial use from disposal. In 2012, almost 40% of all coal ash produced was recycled (beneficially used), rather than disposed. Beneficial use of coal ash can produce positive environmental, economic and performance benefits such as reduced use of virgin resources, lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduced cost of coal ash disposal, and improved strength and durability of materials, according to the Agency.

Ongoing battles

Both environmental groups and coal energy advocates expressed displeasure with the EPA ruling.

The former have long pushed for the “hazardous” designation and they voiced their disappointment over national standards that do not come with any federal enforcement, instead leaving oversight up to states and citizens.

The latter includes U.S. House members who have has passed legislation to fight coal ash rules in each of the last two sessions of Congress.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the probable chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, issued a joint statement with Senator-elect Shelley Capito (R-W.Va.), saying the EPA rule will be costly and “leave a detrimental impact” on states that already manage coal ash. Vowing to pursue legislation, the statement portrays the EPA’s rule as another battlefront in what Inhofe has called President Obama’s “war on coal.”

Ron Bygness is the senior editor of Geosynthetics magazine.

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