Monthly Archives: February 2019

Legacy CCR Series: Part 5 of 6

The Only Problem with the Unencapsulated Beneficial Use Definition is the Word “Unencapsulated”

In public debate over the best disposition of legacy coal ash (CCR), the phrase “uncapsulated beneficial use” is used. However, “uncapsulated” solutions, such as mixing loose CCR into soil or spreading large quantities as fill on construction sites without environmental safeguards, are no longer considered viable options for beneficial use.

The method called “macroencapsulation” is considered by the EPA to be an “unencapsulated beneficial use.” This term, at least on the surface limits encapsulation beneficial use to a micro level (the CCR is fused or, in EPA terms, “encapsulated”) through recycling into another product like concrete or wall board. But if you look at macroencapsulation on a macro level, the CCR is FULLY encapsulated and rendered inert within a structure. Confusing? We know, since we understand the safeguards put in place for all beneficial use, But a simple label certainly has a negative impact.

EPA regulations on beneficial use finalized in April 2015 have safeguards in place to exclude earlier methods of unencapsulated beneficial use that have proven dangerous.

40 CFR § 257.53 Definitions “Beneficial Use”

Beneficial use of CCR means the CCR meets all the following conditions:

(1)      The CCR must provide a functional benefit;

(2)      The CCR must substitute for the use of a virgin material, conserving natural resources that would otherwise need to be obtained through practices, such as extraction;

(3)      The use of the CCR must meet relevant product specifications, regulatory standards or design standards when available, and when such standards are not available, the CCR is not used in excess quantities; and

(4)      When unencapsulated, use of CCR involving placement on the land of 12,400 tons or more in non-roadway applications, the user must demonstrate and keep records, and provide such documentation upon request, that environmental releases to groundwater, surface water, soil and air are comparable to or lower than those from analogous products made without CCR, or that environmental releases to groundwater, surface water, soil and air will be at or below relevant regulatory and health-based benchmarks for human and ecological receptors during use.

Macroencapsulation meets all four of these EPA requirements, winning another argument against calling it an “unencapsulated” approach.

In 2009, and again in 2012, well before the EPA issued its 2015 regulations, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality approved macroencapsulation as a tested, proven and environmentally protective beneficial use, positioning Virginia as a visionary leader in the safe disposition of CCR.

The snag continues to lie in the semantics. The public continues to mistakenly view macroencapsulation – where coal ash is completely encased in an impervious barrier, in no contact with air, soil or groundwater whatsoever – an unencapsulated use. Although the EPA supports responsible beneficial use, the EPA’s definition of “unencapsulated” injects confusion into any discussion of the advantages of macroencapsulation and causes it to be discounted without considering the sound science behind it.

The last-ditch solution of disposing of coal ash by moving it to lined landfills is also considered a viable option. But a landfill’s geomembranes are no different from the geomembranes used in a macroencapsulated structure. The only difference is that the landfill continues to be a landfill (full of coal ash), whereas a macroencapsulation project uses the CCR to reconfigure the land for productive reuse, such as creating an area where solar panels can generate renewable energy.

What’s more, macroencapsulation done on-site or near the existing legacy coal ash pond is usually the least disruptive and most cost-effective solution.

The bottom line is that macroencapsulation IS a method of encapsulation, and it has more potential for safe disposition of CCR and land reclamation than recycling the CCR into other products, because recycling will always be limited by the market’s demand for those products.

Legacy CCR Series: Part 4 of 6

Slow Death of Cap-In-Place

Over the years, methods to properly close legacy coal ash ponds (referred to “CCR units” by the EPA) have become a source of great debate. Most utilities have publicly stated that closure in place, commonly referred to “cap-in-place,” is a “safe and effective option” and it is being considered at a great number of coal ash ponds across the U.S.

However, that strategy has been slowly dying as a solution. The science behind the choice has revealed, according to the EPA, that coal ash in direct contact with soil leaches contaminants such as selenium, mercury, cadmium and arsenic into surrounding groundwater. These substances have been clearly associated with cancer and other serious illnesses.

(40 CFR § 257.102(d)(i))

“Control, minimize or eliminate, to the maximum extent feasible, post-closure infiltration of liquids into the waste and releases of CCR, leachate, or contaminated run-off to the ground or surface waters or to the atmosphere…”

As we’ve previously posted, the EPA regulations stipulate that capping in-place is safe only under certain conditions.

While this does not stipulate that this performance standard specifically applies to the entire CCR unit, acceptable waste management practice indicates that it does apply to the entire CCR unit storage system. To interpret the regulation any other way would mean that concern for environmental impact is restricted to surface water infiltration, and does not include any subsurface interactions of the CCR with the environment.

To paraphrase Hamlet, therein lies the rub – a judgement call must be made as to whether cap-in-place of a pond has alleviated environmental impact to the “maximum extent feasible” if the pond still has the potential to leak underground into the environment in the future.

Like placing a bet in Las Vegas, the odds can change based on various factors such as, for example:

Factor No. 1 equals 100% need for clean-up, not cap-in-place. Once stakeholders have determined that cap-in-place is not an option, the challenge of finding effective ways to properly dispose of tens of millions of tons of legacy coal ash becomes an imperative.

Legacy CCR Series: Part 3 of 6

The 5 C’s of Legacy Coal Ash Beneficial Reuse

When utilities are determining how to eliminate environmental hazards posed by legacy coal ash, the paramount goal should be to beneficially reuse much or all of it, if possible, with disposal being the last resort. We discussed methods of accomplishing this in Post 1: microencapsulation and macroencapsulation.

Now we’ll cover what these two methods’ frameworks have in common, or the “5 C’s” of beneficial reuse.

Beneficially reusing coal ash in productive ways yields many more benefits than simply disposing of this material. Coal ash may be used in place of some virgin materials in building products like concrete, brick, block and wall board, which helps to preserve virgin resources. Creating products through recycling typically requires less energy consumption in manufacturing, so fewer greenhouse gases are generated. Using coal ash as a construction fill in a macroencapsulated environment also yields similar benefits.

The 5 C’s Role in Coal Ash Beneficial Reuse

  1. Commitment to the process. In determining the best strategy for beneficial reuse, it’s vital for all parties involved to commit to carrying out the agreed-upon process, whose components include technology, cost and constructability.
  • Clean closure, the preferred environmental method. Now that environmentalists and energy end users have become educated on the inherent dangers of leaving coal ash in the environment, they aren’t satisfied with a cap-in-place solution that leaves coal ash in unlined ponds where it can continue to leach toxins into the surrounding land and groundwater.
  • Creation of proper, adequate storage. As already stated, dumping coal ash into unlined areas, or using it as unencapsulated fill material without environmental safeguards on construction sites are no longer considered viable options. Macroencapsulation uses the same landfill safeguards, rendering the storage proper and adequate.
  • Consolidation into the smallest footprint. This has always been the mantra of the solid waste industry. In coal ash disposition, once as much volume is microencapsulated into other products as possible, remaining ash may be macroencapsulated as construction fill for berms or bunkers and rendered inert.

Macroencapsulation can also reduce the footprint, which saves valuable acreage and can safely position the ash farther away from flood plains and groundwater. The bonus is that the surface created on the smaller footprint can be repurposed for solar energy generation or park land, to name a few uses.

One notable example of land reuse is the famous Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach. This 165-acre family-friendly park with many amenities was once a solid waste eyesore.

  • Compliance with environmental regulations. Since coal ash has lost its classification as a benign byproduct of energy production, the EPA has issued guidelines for encapsulated and un-encapsulated beneficial reuse. Complying with or exceeding these regulations prohibits even the suggestion of implementing any legacy non-protective solutions.

Positive Outcomes Resulting from This Framework

  • Correct the problem
  • Beneficially reuse as much legacy coal ash as possible
  • Re-purpose the land, if possible
  • Safely remove all coal ash from the environment