The EPA has not designated the coal ash produced while generating electricity a hazardous material, but too many localities have experienced the havoc wreaked on the environment when coal ash and other coal combustion residuals (CCRs) are disposed of in dubious “beneficial” ways, such as becoming loose fill material in other construction projects.
In December 2014, the EPA issued rules requiring power companies to install liners in new CCR landfills and disposal ponds to avoid leakage, and to curb the release of coal ash dust into the air.
However, existing unlined disposal sites still remain open and in use, so it could be years before we see any significant reduction in CCR-related disasters. You’d think the 2008 release of millions of gallons of coal ash sludge into the Tennessee River from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which contaminated the water, destroyed homes and still stands as the worst coal ash disaster in U.S. history, would have convinced the EPA and industry that it’s time for change.
Such loose regulation is unthinkable in the waste industry, which has adhered for years to the waste management hierarchy of “reduce, reuse, recycle” to minimize the volume of waste needing disposal. But the power industry has had no such limits because nothing can interfere with the mandate to produce power.
So if CCR reduction isn’t an option, it’s time for the power industry to consider alternative disposal methods. Coal ash can be recycled into building components such as wallboard and concrete, but the jury’s still out on how safe over time exposure to these materials is. However, the macro-encapsulation solutions that AWT has patented will fully contain coal ash and other CCRs, removing it from the environment indefinitely.
According to the American Coal Ash Association’s most recent available figures, in 2013 about 114.7 million tons of coal combustion products (CCPs) were produced, yet only about 45% (51.4 million tons) were reused.
That leaves a lot of room for improvement.
Instead of accepting the status quo and adding a few no-brainer protective measures without deadlines for implementation, the EPA should get serious about reining in this ongoing threat and compel the power industry to recognize that times have changed. Power companies should start taking a harder look at the viable, economical alternatives available for CCR disposal and maybe borrow some of the methods the waste industry has been using successfully for years.