USEPA Has The Coal Gang Cornered: Fly Ash Management Rule Choice A Political Challenge

Fly ash handling - beneficial use. Image credit:Project Monitor

Ever since the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted back in 1976, coal-fired utilities, industrial boiler operators, and coal producers have fought off repeated attempts to regulate how combustion residuals are managed. In the completely free market that followed, industry created many safe, beneficial uses for fly ash. There were also some pretty lame (and reckless) cheap-ash dumps created. USEPA is again working on a rule to regulate coal 'residuals' - 34 years on - in a manner which will continue to allow for beneficial uses. EPA is undecided, however, about which of two approaches they have come up with will be the best way to regulate final disposal of residuals: fills; lagoons; ponds; heaps; and so on. So they are awaiting public comment on the proposed rule.

Choice #1 is to manage residuals as they were ordinary municipal solid waste. Choice # 2 is to regulate residuals as 'special waste" under the RCRA hazardous waste provisions. Under both, EPA "would establish dam safety requirements to address the structural integrity of surface impoundments ..." The choices for "Coal Combustion Residuals" are described here. Cost analysis from the proposed rule is described below.I get to the politics of this down the post. But for now...from the proposed rule:

Table 1 below provides a summary of estimated regulatory costs and benefits for three regulatory options, based on the 7% discount rate base case and the 50-year period-of-analysis applied in the RIA. Furthermore, this benefit and cost summary table displays ranges of net benefit and benefit/cost results across three different scenarios concerning the potential impacts of each option on the future annual beneficial use of CCRs under each option. The first scenario presents the potential impact scenario that assumes that the increased future annual cost of RCRA-regulated CCR disposal will induce coal-fired electric utility plants to increase beneficial use of CCRs. The second scenario presents a potential market stigma effect under the subtitle C option which will induce a decrease in future annual CCR beneficial use.

The third scenario assumed that beneficial use of CCRs continues according to its recent trend line without any future change as a result of any of the regulatory options. The RIA estimates both the first and second scenario incrementally in relation to the third scenario no change trend line. Table 1 shows the range of impacts and associated ranges of net benefits and benefit-cost ratios across these three beneficial use scenarios for each regulatory option. While each of these three scenario outcomes may be possible, EPA's experience with the RCRA program indicates that industrial generators of RCRA-regulated wastes are often able to increase recycling and materials recovery rates after a subtitle C regulation. Section XII in this preamble provides additional discussion of these estimates.

Annual cost to industry, depending on which choice is selected for the final rule, will be billions per year, with the "special waste" choice approximately 2.3 times as expensive as managing the residuals just as you would ordinary trash. Guess which choice industry will prefer?

In the headline I indicated that EPA has the coal gang cornered. EPA's strategy here is a good one. Utilities will have to support one choice or the other: either offer to meet the same standards that every city and town has been held accountable to for years or further reduce the risk of having people be exposed to toxic heavy metals and radionuclides by managing as a special waste.

Watching the lobbyists spin it will be great fun. Even more fun will be seeing how the coal-baggers (pro coal congress critters) will position themselves. Constituent safety vs campaign donations. Hmmm.?

What states host the coal-baggers you ask? Google no further.

USEPA is likely to more stringently regulate the stack emissions of mercury from coal combustion units. Mercury is currently emitted mostly in vapor form. Hence, little of it partitions to coal 'residuals.' Once more stringent future mercury standards are implemented, however, the technology will almost certainly partition more of the mercury into the solid residual materials that USEPA is talking about in this proposed new residuals management rule. In that case, it makes no sense to support management of coal residuals outside of the hazardous waste domain.

Industry experts and EPA must certainly realize this. So in a way, here, the proposed coal residuals rule is tossing a card into a cocked hat.


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