Coal Ash: Reuse, Recycle and Regulate Rationally
In June 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed costly federal regulations to designate coal ash, the byproduct created when coal is burned to generate electricity, as a hazardous waste – even though it clearly does not fit that definition.
Coal ash has generally been regulated at the state level as a common solid waste, allowing for large amounts of it to be recycled into products like cement and for the rest to be disposed of in permitted landfills. Even tests conducted according to EPA methodology have consistently shown that coal ash does not display hazardous waste characteristics.
To ignore sound science and instead impose such an inflexible federal regulatory structure would have devastating impacts, from staggering compliance costs to threatening the reliability of the nation's electricity grid. Increased costs for electric utilities would result in increased electric prices for households and small businesses. Halting the coal ash recycling program, which finds many beneficial uses for recycled ash, would also have a huge impact, both on industries that currently use recycled ash and the landfills that will have to take it in.
The current coal ash management system in the United States works. State regulators in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Wyoming and elsewhere have a track record of protecting public health and the environment through the proper regulation of coal ash as a solid waste.
The EPA agreed. In December 2014, it announced its decision to not to classify coal ash as hazardous waste, allowing states to maintain their coal ash management systems and recycling programs.
Designating coal ash as hazardous waste would have cost the electric power industry $79-$110 billion in compliance costs over 20 years while resulting in more than 300,000 jobs lost.