Coal ash from power plants is safe for use in cement and wallboard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said today in a long-delayed decision that may boost recycling of a major source of industrial waste.
The determination and an EPA court filing last month indicating it may not regulate ash as a hazardous waste will boost utilities and companies such as Headwaters Inc. (HW) that use the product. The EPA acted as Duke Energy Corp. (DUK) deals with a spill at a North Carolina coal-ash disposal pond that sent toxic arsenic, chromium and lead into a river. Recycling can help curb the number and use of coal-ash ponds, proponents say.
“We now finally seem to be heading down a path where we will have some certainty,” said John Ward, head of government affairs for the American Coal Ash Association, which represents companies using the material. “They are once again re-affirming their support for recycling.”
Ward’s group, representing companies such as power producers XCel Energy Inc. (XEL) and cement-maker Holcim Ltd. (HOLN), said a survey of utilities found that in 2012 at least 39 million tons of waste from burning coal were recycled. Products in the EPA’s health analysis included fly ash pulled from the exhaust of coal plants by scrubbers or baghouses, according to the agency.
“The protective reuse of coal ash advances sustainability by saving valuable resources, reducing costs, and lessening environmental impacts,” Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste, said in a statement.
In a proposal for regulating coal ash in 2010, the agency suggested two approaches, including labeling it as hazardous, which would add stricter standards for plant owners. Republicans in Congress and groups lobbying for companies such as Headwaters pressed the EPA to abandon the approach, saying it would kill off recycling.
EPA in a series of decisions since then has signaled that it intends to do so. Those rules are set to be completed by the end of the year.
Environmental groups have increased pressure on the agency to fulfill a pledge to regulate disposal of the waste, and they say EPA could still maintain the stricter approach.
“They could look at the Duke spill and say something more needs to be done,” said Abigail Dillen, a lawyer for environmentalists that pushed the agency to issue its rules. “As we’re watching this disaster play out in North Carolina, it points out why a state” system isn’t good enough, she said.
The spill at the Duke plant leaked an estimated 27 million gallons of water and 82,000 tons of ash into the Dan River since Feb. 2.
Dillen, who praised the recycling decision, said the agency must now develop limits on the use of coal ash for other purposes, such as salting roads in the winter or filling up berms or old coal mines.
“They call it a beneficial use, which exempts it from regulation,” she said.
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