Coal Ash

A bulldozer moves coal at the North Omaha Station

Burning coal to generate electricity creates a byproduct called coal ash. Utilities take two basic approaches to their coal ash: reuse it in other products, like gypsum wallboard or concrete, or place it in special landfills. Many utilities store the coal ash at their power plants, typically in manmade ponds to keep dust and other fine particulates from blowing into neighboring areas.

Each year, utilities around the U.S. reuse more than 50 million tons of coal ash—nearly half the total amount of ash produced by utility coal combustion.

The utility industry’s approach to coal ash—reuse it or store it—has long been accepted by geologists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, in particular,  supported the industry’s approach to treating and managing coal ash. On four separate occasions—most recently under the Clinton Administration in 2000—EPA determined that coal ash does not warrant regulation as a hazardous waste. Not only did EPA find that coal ash rarely, if ever, exhibits hazardous waste characteristics, the agency also concluded that states could safely manage coal ash under federal non-hazardous waste rules.

Nebraska utilities reuse coal ash in gypsum wallboard

In 2007 and 2008, the EPA and Congress started rethinking regulation of coal ash. Then, in December 2008, a breach in a large coal ash containment pond in Tennessee released millions of cubic yards of wet ash, damaging some houses and resulting in cleanup costs exceeding $1 billion.

This dramatically increased the level of public and congressional interest in the regulation of coal ash. Some alleged that coal ash contained materials that required regulation as a “hazardous” waste under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). In June 2010, the EPA proposed regulating coal ash as a “hazardous” waste—the most stringent form of regulation under federal law—under RCRA.

Members of the Nebraska Power Association store their coal ash in dry containment facilities, unlike in Tennessee where the ash was stored in a wet-ash containment pond. The NPA supports the development and implementation of federally enforceable, non-hazardous waste regulations for coal ash that address both environmental issues and the safety of ash ponds. The industry is willing to work with EPA to enhance the agency’s existing enforcement authority under a non-hazardous waste program to ensure a consistent level of protection in all states, while avoiding the adverse implications of regulating coal ash as “hazardous” waste.

Officials from nearly every state, and several state associations, take the same view. After investigating the breach of the Kingston coal-ash containment pond, the Tennessee Department of Health, working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, determined that the coal ash released posed little potential harm to human health.

Managing the coal pile at the Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland, Nebraska

Some wrongly assume that regulating coal ash as a “hazardous” material under RCRA would lead to its increased reuse in cement, gypsum wallboard, or soil stabilization. But organizations responsible for regulating coal ash, including state environmental experts, as well as coal ash users and recyclers, agree that regulating coal ash as a “hazardous” waste would effectively end reuse of coal ash due to liability, stigma, and marketing concerns.

If coal ash was regulated as a “hazardous” material, it would need to be transported to an out-of-state RCRA disposal site, which would cost Nebraskans an estimated $50-$100 million per year. It also would preclude the beneficial reuse of that material, depriving Nebraska’s utilities of a revenue stream they use to help keep electric rates low.

Regulating coal ash as a “hazardous” waste under RCRA would  impose unnecessary costs on Nebraskans and prevent the beneficial reuse of that by-product. Both would lead to an increase in your electricity prices! The electricity utility industry, as well as officials from virtually every state, support the development of federal, non-hazardous waste regulation for coal ash under RCRA Subtitle D, and having states implement those regulations.