Just before the Holidays the Environmental Protection Agency approved new rules governing the disposition of coal ash. EPA Director McCarthy called the new rules “pragmatic,” which is a bureaucratic code word meaning “I don’t like it, but I’m doing it anyway.” Environmental groups object because the proposed rule does not treat coal ash (also known as fly ash) as a hazardous material. Treating coal ash as a hazardous material would make burning coal extraordinarily expensive due to the ensuing liability of having to dig up and rebury all of the billions of tons of coal dust that have been generated over the years. I am sure that this end result that was not lost on the environmental groups.
Instead of reclassifying coal ash as a hazardous material under CERCLA and/or RCRA, the EPA treated coal ash under Subtitle D of RCRA, which governs landfills. I know that some utilities have seen this regulatory change on the horizon for many years and have already switched over to Subtitle D landfills for any unused coal ash not sold for other purposes, such as concrete.
Even though I would not recommend sprinkling coal ash on my frosted flakes, this decision by the EPA does make some economic sense. To treat coal ash as a hazardous material could well have bankrupted the public and private utilities in the United States and shifted most of the cleanup costs to the American public, who would end up paying the price regardless. Portal to portal costs of $500 per ton are not uncommon in the hazardous waste industry for disposal costs of hazardous materials. Multiply that per ton cost against 131 million tons of coal ash generated every year and the cost would be 65 billion each year going forward. This figure ignores the cost of cleaning up the old coal ash disposal sites, which will cost up to $2,000 per ton to clean up just the last fifty years’ worth of coal ash — to the tune of up to 7.5 trillion dollars in clean up costs. Of course, that figure does not include the cost of tearing down every large building and replacing every bridge and mile of concrete highway built because coal dust is universally incorporated into concrete. It is easy to say that this or that material ought to be regulated as a highly toxic, hazardous material. But every decision needs to be weighed against the other costs that are involved.
New Rules are available here: http://www2.epa.gov/coalash/coal-ash-rule
Coal Ash production figures were obtained from http://www.coalashfacts.org.
Coal Ash and concrete information: http://www.ceratechinc.com/Content/PDFs/Coal-Ash-Primer.pdf