By John Ward, President, John Ward Inc.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s release of a list of 44 “high hazard” coal ash impoundments at electric power plants is a tempest in a teapot that — temporarily, at least — obscures a real tempest. Followers of electric utilities that rely on coal to generate power should be paying attention to a separate Environmental Protection Agency rulemaking under way that threatens to drastically increase the cost of disposing of solid waste from coal combustion.
Last December, a coal ash impoundment in Tennessee failed, spilling a billion gallons of ash slurry across 300 acres, destroying several homes and contaminating two rivers. Massive news media attention and a string of Congressional hearings ensued. EPA responded with two efforts: One to survey the condition of other coal ash impoundments nationwide and another to rewrite rules for disposing of coal ash.
The list of “high hazard” sites is a result of the first effort. EPA initially withheld publishing the list, but was besieged for that decision by dozens of news stories and a press conference by Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Senator Barbara Boxer. Now that EPA has relented and released the list, it’s easy to see why it is of little relevance.
First of all, the list was compiled according to dam safety standards that apply to all kinds of things impounded behind dams. The “high hazard” classification has nothing to do with the “hazardousness” of the material or even the actual integrity of the dam. It just means that IF the dam breaks, there are people or things downstream that can get hurt. Literally thousands of dams in the U.S. qualify as “high hazard.” Secondly, the classifications were made not by EPA, but by the utilities that voluntarily reported. Perhaps this accounts for why 29 of the 44 sites on the list belong to just three utilities.
All of this distracts from EPA’s larger mission of rewriting rules for coal ash disposal. The agency has promised a draft of the new regulations by the end of this year and is reportedly considering a novel approach. EPA may designate coal ash destined for disposal as “hazardous waste” while simultaneously supporting the recycling of coal ash in applications like concrete production – where millions of tons of ash are used beneficially every year.
The implications of this potential approach are truly significant. The electric utility industry produces more than 131 million tons of this material each year. Approximately 75 million tons annually is disposed. A “hazardous” designation for the material could increase the cost of that disposal from a few dollars a ton to dozens or even hundreds of dollars a ton. As for the 56 million tons per year that is currently recycled, there is a danger that markets for recycling may dry up if coal ash producers or users are spooked by the “hazardous for disposal” designation. Then the industry would have many millions more tons to dispose at the much higher disposal costs.
That’s what you call a REAL high hazard.
John N. Ward is President of John Ward Inc. -- a marketing and public affairs consultancy focusing on energy issues. He was formerly Vice President, Marketing and Government Affairs, for Headwaters Incorporated -- a leading provider of pre-combustion and post-combustion clean coal technologies and services. John is a former board member and past president of the American Coal Council. He served on the National Coal Council as appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Energy. John is formerly chairman of the Government Relations Committee of the American Coal Ash Association and participates in numerous industry groups related to the manufacturing and use of construction materials.