The beneficial use of coal ash ticked down slightly in 2016, but one industry group sees blue skies and regulatory certainty ahead even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moves to review some rules associated with the disposal of residuals from coal-fired electric generation.
For every ton of coal burned for electric generation, 5% to 10% of the fuel is left behind as ash and other materials, including fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag and synthetic gypsum. Those leftover materials, referred to by the EPA as coal combustion residuals and by ACAA as coal combustion products, can be used to make concrete, wallboard and roofing as well as for agriculture.
In 2016, 56% of coal ash produced at the nation's power plants was recycled rather than being disposed of, the American Coal Ash Association said in its annual survey released Nov. 21. Total beneficial use of coal ash was 60.2 million tons, out of 107.4 million tons produced.
The forecast for 2017 and future years is also positive, said ACAA Executive Director Thomas Adams, as the use of coal-fired generation is expected to remain a major source of electricity generation. Adams said the industry is facing a more positive outlook under the Trump administration.
The EPA regulates the storage, disposal and use of coal ash and over the past decade and several presidential administrations, has promulgated a number of regulations that pushed the industry into tumult, according to the ACAA. Like any energy-related industry, those that do business in the beneficial reuse of coal ash want regulatory certainty, so the different rule changes have had a significant impact on the tons of coal ash recycled over the years.
Recycling of coal ash was at about 30% toward the end of the Clinton administration, which determined in a rulemaking that the material was not a hazardous waste. The EPA under the George W. Bush administration in 2001 established a public-private partnership to expand the recycling of coal ash materials, called the Coal Combustion Products Partnership, or C2P2. The eight years that followed are what ACAA spokesman John Ward called the "golden era for coal combustion products and beneficial use."
The Obama administration pulled the plug on the program in its first few years and began a review of the nonhazardous waste designation, once again pushing the industry into limbo. Recycling of coal ash mostly stalled until Obama's EPA ultimately reaffirmed the nonhazardous waste designation in 2014.
Now, the Trump EPA is moving to review the Obama administration's coal ash rule, and a legal battle over the rule was argued Nov. 20 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. While both ongoing issues may seem likely to cast uncertainty over the industry once more, both Ward and Adams say that is not the case, at least with respect to reusing coal ash.
The provisions up for review by both the EPA and the D.C. Circuit mostly concern the disposal of coal ash, not beneficial reuse, save for one issue the ACAA is optimistic will be resolved in their favor. "Nobody is talking about whether [coal ash] should be regulated as a hazardous waste," said Ward. "That was the regulatory certainty that hurt the beneficial re-use industry."
Adams also said the EPA under the leadership of Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt has been open to discussing opportunities for beneficial use of coal ash and could even revive the C2P2 program. "It is a 180-degree turn from the Obama administration," Adams said.
"We support getting the band back together in one form or another, either by that name or some other," Ward said of C2P2. Adams added that informal discussions among previous members of the partnership have also talked about reforming even without the EPA.
Adams said, however, that regarding the production and supply of coal ash, which the reuse industry does not have control over, some lingering uncertainty over the court case and EPA review exists among the utilities subject to the rules.
"The utility industry tends to be cautious and rightly so. What do you do as a utility that isn't very expensive?" Adams said. "They want to make sure they're doing things properly for the long term."