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.”