Manchin to EPA: Leave our coal ash alone

February 12, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.


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?


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.


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. 

17 Responses to “Manchin to EPA: Leave our coal ash alone”

  1. WVState says:

    Great. Let’s see the safety regs first. Let’s see the enforcement first.

    Then get back to me about how wonderful it is.

  2. Pete Myers says:

    Thank you, Ken, for your honest and steely-eyed reporting.

    So here’s the key quote:

    “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. ”

    If you look at the levels of health-threatening metal contamination that is in coal ash, what does that translate to for exposure to Americans on a daily basis?

    Based on my understanding of the science, the answer is likely to be “much more than trivial.” The coal industry appears to have constructed a means of “getting rid of” its toxic waste by putting it into American homes and businesses. Something doesn’t seem right.

    No wonder coal is cheap. The costs of coal don’t reflect its real costs to American families. Ken Ward’s reporting helps highlight that reality.

  3. Greenspace says:

    Well, be careful what you wish for. We’d have to create more secure landfill space to accommodate the material. Electric bills would rise to pay for it. It would also mean more mining somewhere, for raw cement materials that are currently displaced by ash, and more fuel combustion and CO2 emissions to process into cement. The net environmental effect of a hazardous declaration is probably negative, and our cost of living will go up.

  4. Mondo says:

    “Steely-eyed reporting?”

    This might have been cutting -edge in 1910, but 100 years later, this discussion is almost cult-like. Even Pravda no longer talks like this.

    Only in the Charleston Gazette–or the Nation.

  5. rhmooney3 says:

    Many by-products (wastes) are successfully used in new products — composted sewage sludge as fertilizer for your gardens being among them, as well as, public drinking water from cleansed municipal waster water.

    The U.S. EPA kept its “eyes” wide shut to many things, coal waste disposal — both reusing and dumping — among them.

    Keep in mind that EPA actions will be on new and current activities. Problems from past reuses and dumpings will likely be dealt with “on a case by case basis.”

    The process to impose new requirements — rulemaking — will take years to do.

    (There’s a long ways yet to go.)

    By the way: The Chinese drywall problems now seem not to be coal-related as initially blamed.

    For those (liek me) who need to get a life take up knitting.

  6. Vernon says:

    I’d like to see Joe Manchin start spending a lot more time as a governor looking out for the interests of all the state’s citizens and a lot less time as a coal industry lobbyist. He put a lot of effort (or his writers did) into this lengthy op-ed opposing hazardous waste regulation, but not one word of an op-ed opposing violence and intimidation by some industry supporters. I specifically asked him to write one. He did make a statement–a couple of sentences at a press conference Jan. 25–that was ignored by some papers, such as the Logan Banner. I expect they’ll print every word of this op-ed and use it as more justification to silence “treehuggers.”

  7. Karen White says:

    This does not surprise me!!!

  8. Garry says:

    Gov. Manchin, do you ever get claustrophobic in Don Blakenships’ pocket? If so,wriggle out,and stand up and fight for our small businesses in WV.Thank You.

  9. JKotcon says:

    I have not looked at the data, but I suspect that the metals from fly ash that get locked up in concrete are realtively immobile. My bigger concern is calling the land application of coal combustion byproducts (CCBs, e.g., fly ash, bottom ash, slag, scrubber wastes, etc.) a “beneficial use”. When it is dumped many feet thick onto a mine site, it is really no longer a soil amendment, it is just plain dumping. And in that condition, all those metals are readily available for leaching into our waters. Since the DEP requires almost no monitoring of CCBs and their metal content, there is no way to distinguish the most hazardous wastes from relatively innocuous ash.
    But the Governor’s labeling of this practice as “recycling” is the ultimate in green-washing. If I take waste and dump it on the ground, it is littering (or worse). But if a coal company does it, the Governor calls it “recycling”. Is this what you think of when you hear the word “recycling”?

  10. Nanette says:

    I think that coal ash recycling dumping should be done on the lawn of our state capitol and mostly on the governor’s mansion lawn. That is just about all that place is good for the way I see it. If the governor doesn’t believe it is toxic, then let him work and live in it instead of dumping it on the citizens of this state.

  11. eastwood78 says:

    Nanette: I agree with you. What better place to dump the coal ash than on the lawns of the state capitol. It would be wonderful if it could also be dumped on blankenship’s yard.

  12. Monty says:

    Yeesh … why don’t we just all gather in a circle around a mountain of this wonderful, wonderful stuff and start singing Kumbyyah? Manchin really needs to start making sure his foot is free of coal ash and … other stuff before he starts sticking it in his mouth on a regular basis. This is not going to endear him to the EPA.

  13. […] controversy continues over the U.S. EPA’s still-unreleased proposed rule to reform coal ash handling and disposal rules, residents of Perry County, Ala., are planning to […]

  14. Villian says:

    It sounds like people on this site would like to see the sole business in WV be government as once coal ash has nowhere to go the jobs will have somewhere to go. AWAY!

  15. PWood says:

    West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin recently highlighted some beneficial uses of coal combustion waste (CCW) – but there is another side to the story.

    CCW contains concentrated levels of toxic materials. Using CCW in cement or road surfaces — where the toxic material may be stabilized and isolated — is far less dangerous than dumping millions of tons of CCW over thousands of acres of surface-mined land, with no protection for local watersheds and property owners, a common practice in north-central WV (Monongalia, Preston, and Marion counties).

    Field studies have documented lead, selenium, arsenic, mercury, thallium and acid mine drainage leaching from CCW disposal sites into waterways. These studies also show elevated sulfates and total dissolved solids in CCW-affected waterways, which increase treatment costs for municipal drinking water supplies and for power plants’ cooling water – and kills aquatic life. Inhalation of airborne CCW dust by citizens living near surface mine CCW disposal sites could lead to serious respiratory diseases, such as chronic bronchitis, silicosis, and/or cancer. The amount of CCW being dumped on north-central WV mine sites far exceeds amounts that could be considered “beneficial use.” Scientific evidence of any long-term benefits from the disposal of 10,000 tons/acre of CCW on these surface mines is non-existent.

    There is inconsistency among states regarding the use, oversight, and regulatory control of CWW disposal in mines. Some states consider it to be waste disposal. Others, like West Virginia, have a very lax attitude that does not protect watersheds and local property owners. The regulation of CCW being recommended by the EPA would provide consistent rules that help prevent harm to our land, water, health, and property values from the hazardous disposal of CCW on large areas of land.

    For citizens who wish to know the facts behind this side of the story, please see the following sources:

    Dockter, B.A. and Jagiella D.M. 2005. Engineering and environmental specifications of state agencies for utilization and disposal of coal combustion products: volume 2 – environmental regulations. CBRC Project Number: 02-CBRC-W12. 60pp.

    Hansen, E. and M. Christ. 2005. Water quality impacts of coal combustion waste disposal in two West Virginia coal mines. Morgantown, WV: Downstream Strategies. April.

    McDonald, L.M. and Simmons J. 2004. Effects of Large-Scale CCB Applications on Groundwater: Case Studies. CDBRCE-37. 30pp.

    National Academy of Sciences. 2006. Managing coal combustion residues in mines. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. 238pp.

    Stant, J., ed. 2007. Impacts on water quality from placement of coal combustion waste in Pennsylvania coal mines. Clean Air Task Force.

    Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. 2009. Drinking Water and Public Health Impacts of Coal Combustion Waste Disposal – Hearings.

    United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2009. Steam Electric Power Generating Point Source Category: Final Detailed Study Report. EPA 821-R-09-008. 233pp.

  16. LAGTime says:

    Why do we persist in privileging “jobs” above health–including the health of our surroundings (water, air, soil), the health of others who have no choice (the trees, the mountains, the birds, the fish, the amphibians, reptiles, and other unseen wildlife) as to where we mine and put our refuse, and the health of ourselves? This makes no sense. You know a system is corrupt when people are forced to choose between “jobs” and their own health–or such is the bill we’ve been sold and readily purchased.

  17. Linda D. Cox says:

    I agree with the comment which states that the ash should be dumped on the Governor’s front lawn so he can get a first hand experience on how to deal with it. He’s way to busy NOT taking care of the people of West Virgina for whom he is suppose to be representing.

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