When the dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Fuel plant failed in December 2008, it caused more damage than the reported 1.1 billion of coal slurry that flowed toward the Emory River. The dam's breach has given opponents of coal-fired power plants replay of a ruling that was not in their favor. And with the change of federal administration, the environmental groups pushing for change feel they have home field advantage.

For more than three decades, the EPA, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Federal Highway Administration, and other government- and health-related agencies and research centers have studied coal ash as it relates to the title of hazardous waste. In 2002, the EPA determined coal ash does not warrant regulation as a hazardous waste. In its report, EPA staffers indicated that a hazardous designation would severely limit the use of the fly ash in sustainable efforts.

In an ironic turn of political positioning, the concrete industry now finds itself across the scrimmage line from teammates for the cause of sustainable development. Environmentalists who oppose coal-fired power generation are now riding the crest of the breach's outflow to mobilize their political action activity to shut down “King Coal.” Their goal is to urge legislation that entrusts federal oversight of coal combustible disposal activities. Instead of focusing on geo-technical and containment designs, their political action groups have transformed the discussion to whether the federal government should supersede state efforts. The only way this can happen is by labeling fly ash as hazardous and thus subject to federal regulation.

Now on defense, the concrete industry finds itself the sole linebacker posed to tackle the hard running ball carrier of environmental groups' end run against coal fired power plants. Effective industry, EPA, and stakeholder cooperative activities have been suspended. For example, in the spring of 2010, EPA officials abruptly suspended active participation in the Coal Combustion Products Partnership (C2P2) program.

This program was an influential supporter of fly ash use in DOT and other new construction activities, and included groups such as the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA). EPA officials defended the suspension, stating, “We are taking and assessing comment on the beneficial use of coal combustion residuals (CCR) through the CCR proposed rulemaking. While the Agency continues to support safe and protective beneficial reuse of coal combustion residues, the C2P2 program Web pages have been removed while the program is being re-evaluated.”

Running interference

Football coaches often disguise their end run plays by having non-ball carriers or blockers lead the path of action. They try to knock down any opponents in the way while creating a hole in the defensive strategy. In much the same way, opponents of coal-fired power plants are using other environmental issues concerning fly ash disposal as justification to classify fly ash as a hazardous waste.

Unfortunately for the concrete industry, these issues are broader than the science of mix design and concrete properties. At the Dallas public hearing in September, a rancher was concerned about exposure to fly ash that county officials had incorporated in the treatment of a nearby country road. Supporters of the hazardous waste designation from Chicago expressed fears that airborne fly ash from nearby coal-fired plants was poisoning children. And a physician from Dallas urged the hazardous classification to protect groundwater sources.

As the end of the public comment period draws closer, the concrete industry finds itself in a sort of dead ball time. The industry outlook would radically change should the hazardous waste classification be adopted. Perhaps this is best explained by the NRMCA's statement on the proposed rules: “One option the agency proposes would list impoundment- or landfill-bound CCR under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Subtitle C. Cement, concrete, and coal ash management/marketing interests argue that such a listing, and the attendant hazardous waste designation for CCR, would stigmatize fly ash, undermine its commercial viability as supplementary cementing material and hamper industry strides in environmental stewardship.”


The NRMCA has good reason for this concern. To comply with most building codes, engineers cannot legally use a hazardous waste material in concrete construction. In a Sept. 4, 2009 letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jack-son, American Concrete Institute (ACI) leadership warned the EPA of the classification's effect. “Designating fly ash as a ‘hazardous waste' will result in little or no fly ash being used in concrete in the U.S. We anticipate the concrete industry will no longer specify its use; and fly ash producers would not permit its beneficial use due to liability concerns, preferring to impound fly ash rather than allow its use.”

Leaders from the ASTM committee that develops standards for the use of fly ash in concrete expressed similar concerns. In a letter to administrator Jackson, they noted that the committee would have to advise users of their document that the EPA had given this material a hazardous classification.

Mixed signals

What is the Sierra Club telling its members? In an Aug. 8, 2010 blog post, Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, urged members not to believe the concrete industry's argument that the federal alternative would prohibit using fly ash in concrete.

Nilles attempted to discredit letters of support for fly ash written by 139 House members and 36 Senators. He claimed the letters “advance faulty claims that stringent federal safeguards for coal ash would stigmatize the coal ash recycling industry (coal ash is often recycled into concrete, bricks, etc...), with the Senate letter claiming even the proposed idea of this type of regulation has caused a downturn in the market.” Nilles continued, “What these letters choose to ignore is that EPA's proposals would completely exempt coal ash that's encapsulated from water and safely recycled into construction materials.”

Despite what Mr. Nilles says, most industry observers believe that if fly ash were labeled a hazardous waste, operators of coal-fired power plants would soon stop selling it. According to John Ward, chairman of Citizens for Recycling First, a Denver-based citizen action group supporting fly ash use, “The stigma created by incorrectly labeling coal ash ‘toxic' and ‘hazardous' makes people less likely to use the material. It also may cause utilities to withold coal ash from users because of fear of litigation.”

Imagine a concrete and cement industry without fly ash. Prices would rise, giving concrete an unfair disadvantage against petroleum-based products. Materials suppliers could be in jeopardy. Coal-fired power plants would face increased landfill costs and lost revenue. And most importantly, the construction industry would be without one of its most useful tools to promote concrete durability. The sustainable construction effort would be hampered as its greatest success would be mothballed.

Citizens for Recycling First

Like-minded individuals have formed numerous citizen groups to present a united voice to government officials. These groups have become so entrenched that many senior federal officials deem them more important than elected officials, state agencies, and industry groups. To help counter the influence that many environmental special interest groups bring to the discussion of coal ash and the EPA's proposed “hazardous waste for disposal” approach, a new citizen group was recently formed.

Citizens for Recycling First allows individuals to unite in supporting coal ash recycling as a safe and environmentally preferable alternative to disposal. The group offers information on regulations under development and their potential impact on recycling, and an outlet to assertively challenge misleading news media characterizations of coal ash. Chairman John N. Ward is a consultant to the energy industry, with more than 12 years experience in marketing coal ash for environmentally beneficial uses.

Ward traveled to all of the EPA ruling meetings to provide testimony on behalf of the group. He hosts a blog on the group's Web site, in which he provides insights on current events affecting this issue.

Citizens for Recycling First reports to have more than 1200 citizen members, and is inviting more citizens to join in support of their activity.

Visit www.recyclingfirst.org.

Learn more:
In the discussion of fly ash and its use in the concrete industry, the American Concrete institute is a key information provider. To help professionals in the industry make their own decisions regarding the classification of fly ash, the ACI staff has created a Web site with educational material on the topic. They plan to post the results of an industry-wide survey on the issue in late October. See www.flyash.concrete.org.

Share your opinion:
The American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) is providing interested parties an opportunity to express to the EPA that the agency's proposed "hazardous" rule threatens green jobs, opposes sound science, and will cost taxpayers unneccessary expenses. They provide a form letter, very similar to those developed by environmental groups, that is ready for entry into the EPA rule proposal docket. ACAA also provides a link for submitting personal letters prior to the scheduled close of the public comment period, Nov. 19, 2010. See the ACAA web site, www.acaa-usa.org.