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Manchin to EPA: Leave our coal ash alone

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Just when I thought the news was about over for this Friday evening, an e-mail message from West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin’s office showed up in my in-box … the headline?

OP-ED: COAL ASH A BENEFICIAL RESOURCE IF SAFETY CONCERNS ARE PUT FIRST

That’s right, Manchin has thrown in with the coal operators and power companies who oppose any move by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare toxic ash from coal-fired power plants to be a hazardous waste. According to Manchin:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose new federal rules that would designate coal ash – a byproduct of using coal to generate electricity – as a “hazardous” waste. Such a decision would cause significant economic and environmental damage and I implore the EPA to evaluate the facts about coal ash recycling before making a decision.

The entire opinion piece is posted here on the governor’s official Web site.

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The governor’s statement went on to say:

Jumping to classify coal ash as hazardous waste would neglect many dozens of years of proven beneficial uses of this byproduct. Hastily raising its status to “hazardous” could actually cause more environmental harm and place undue financial burden on countless thousands of Americans.

 Coal fly ash has many beneficial uses and deeming it a “hazardous waste” could have devastating consequences on industries that use this product, and on the families who rely on the jobs related to coal combustion products. In addition, the elimination of the recycling of fly ash because of such a designation would cause a significant negative environmental impact and actually could increase the carbon released to the atmosphere.

Gov. Manchin’s statement comes at a crucial point, with a deadline tomorrow for the White House Office of Management and Budget to finish its review of EPA’s promised proposed rule to reform the handling and disposal of coal ash. The Obama administration has been under tremendous pressure from industry to back off any hazardous waste designation, and has been considering a dual-approach — with some ash considered hazardous and some not — that environmental groups think doesn’t go nearly far enough.

As Pam Kasey at The State Journal has reported, North-Central West Virginia is “ground zero” for land application of power plant ash, and there are lots of questions about that particular practice:

The simple idea behind it, according to Jeff Stant, is that the alkaline CCW material neutralizes the highly acidic northern Appalachian coal wastes and prevents acid mine drainage. Stant has studied CCW for two decades and directs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project’s Coal Combustion Waste Initiative.

The reality, Stant said, is much more complex.

A 2006 National Academy of Sciences study found that CCW contains “metals and other elements, such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium and lead, in quantities that can potentially be harmful to human health or the environment.”

Stant cited research showing that, rather than offering a beneficial synergy, the chemical interactions between acidic mine refuse and alkaline CCW create ideal conditions for leaching the heavy metals from the ash.

“They’re creating a more dangerous scenario,” Stant said. “They’re maximizing risk.”

A map in the National Academies study shows that north-central West Virginia has by far the highest concentration of CCW mine placement in the country.

“Monongalia, Marion and Preston counties, there are 80 or 90 mine dumps there,” Stant said. “Pennsylvania has more total mine dumps, about 120, but they’re spread over the western half of the state and the eastern anthracite region. Yours are almost all in those three counties.”

Manchin goes to lengths to advocate other “beneficial uses” of coal ash — “dozens of different products we use every day – from concrete to gypsum wall boards to roof shingles.” But plenty of concerns have been raised about those “beneficial uses” as well, as we’ve previously reported right here on Coal Tattoo.

Also, the governor says:

Coal fly ash has received a lot of attention following the December 2008 failure of a fly ash slurry impoundment in Tennessee. The safety of our citizens always takes first priority and every state should closely examine their fly ash impoundments, as our Department of Environmental Protection has done in West Virginia in the last year. But we must also separate the issues of the safety and benefits of the material and the faulty design and construction of the dam, which caused that horrible environmental tragedy in Tennessee.

Gov. Manchin forgot to mention that, before the TVA disaster,  the WVDEP had seldom inspected any of West Virginia’s coal-ash dams. And he must have forgotten to include the fact that, when WVDEP did go out and inspect, they found a lot of problems — including two dams the agency didn’t even know existed.

The governor doesn’t mention what, if any, steps the WVDEP has taken to avoid such problems in the future, let alone what steps his administration thinks should be taken about the very serious cancer risks posed by water pollution from coal-ash sites.

But here’s the rest of what Gov. Manchin had to say:

According to EPA’s own figures, about 45 percent of all the coal ash generated by electric utilities in the country today is reused or recycled.  Coal ash recycling is a multi-billion dollar industry that provides thousands of truly green jobs across our country. This reduces landfills and these beneficial products diminish acid mine drainage – a problem in many parts of the country. The EPA proposal would shut down the many U.S. businesses that recycle coal ash and similar materials into dozens of different products we use every day – from concrete to gypsum wall boards to roof shingles. 

According to the Electric Power Research Institute, designating coal ash as hazardous material would shut down 411 coal-based electric generating units in the Midwest and Southeast, costing some regions as much as 14 percent of their generating capacity.

Industry figures show that in 2007, the cement and concrete industry used more than 14 million tons of coal ash.  And, every year, thousands of concrete construction projects use coal combustion byproducts. 

For example, following the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, the replacement span was built with high-performance concrete that uses coal ash.

In West Virginia, coal ash was used to build the world-famous New River Gorge Bridge and the West Virginia Culture Center.  The California Department of Transportation requires that concrete used in its construction projects contain at least 25 percent coal ash.

This past year, the gypsum wallboard industry relied on more than 8 million tons of a material recycled from fly ash, called flue-gas desulfurization gypsum.  In 2007, more than 56 million tons of ash were recycled for beneficial uses.

The safety of fly ash was evaluated in 2000 by the Clinton administration, which determined after an exhaustive analysis that coal ash should not be designated as a “hazardous” waste.

In fact, in the 10 years since that decision, the EPA has calculated that ash recycling by the cement and concrete industry alone has reduced carbon emissions by a staggering 117 million tons. For comparison, all the SUVs on our country’s roads emit about 70 million tons of carbon each year, according to the environmental group, Environmental Defense.

This view is not uncommon. Every key federal agency that has weighed in on the issue – the departments of Energy, Interior, Agriculture and Transportation, the Small Business Administration, and the Army Corps of Engineers — opposes regulating coal ash as hazardous waste.

In addition, dozens of state policymakers, including groups like the National Governors Association and the Environmental Council of the States, along with numerous state environmental protection agencies, also oppose the designation of coal ash as hazardous waste. 

More than three dozen industry groups and individual companies – those whose businesses rely on coal combustion products – have made it clear that hazardous waste regulation is unnecessary and would have a devastating impact on the recycling of coal ash.

Coal fly ash has many beneficial uses and deeming it a “hazardous waste” could have devastating consequences on industries that use this product, and on the families who rely on the jobs related to coal combustion products. In addition, the elimination of the recycling of fly ash because of such a designation would cause a significant negative environmental impact and actually could increase the carbon released to the atmosphere. 

For the sake of our environment, our economy, and our citizens who rely on the products and jobs from coal fly ash recycling, let’s hope the EPA and federal government consider these facts and make the right decision. Designating this material as hazardous is wrong.