The new regulations address the risks from coal ash disposal as far as leaking into ground water, air entrainment, and the catastrophic failure of coal ash surface impoundments. Readers might remember that it was the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) coal ash release from its Kingston power plant in December 2008 that prompted the EPA to assess coal ash surface impoundments. The Kingston spill flooded more than 300 acres of land and released coal ash into the Emory and Clinch rivers. In June 2010, the EPA proposed regulations under RCRA to address the risks from the disposal of CCRs. Environmental activists pushed to have coal ash classified as hazardous materials.

The final rule offers greater clarity on technical requirements. The federal requirement will close surface impoundments and landfills that fail to meet engineering and structural standards. The regulations will restrict the location of new surface impoundments and landfills. The rule also sets out new transparency requirements, including recordkeeping and reporting requirements, as well as the requirement for each facility to post specific information to a publicly accessible website. This final rule also supports the recycling of coal ash by distinguishing safe, beneficial use from disposal, which is an important aspect for power producers and companies that recycle CCRs into products such as roadways and wallboard. In 2012, almost 40% of all coal ash produced was recycled.

“EPA is taking action to protect our communities from the risk of mismanaged coal ash disposal units,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. What she did not point out during her victory lap is that the TVA is a federally owned corporation and it mismanaged its disposal unit and released coal ash slurry into the environment.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) said the EPA’s decision not to regulate CCRs as hazardous will save American taxpayers $105 billion over the next 20 years. Research by the association estimated the additional cost to build roads, bridges and airport runways if fly ash, widely recycled as a pavement mix additive, was not available as a building material. The U.S. transportation construction sector recycles more than 8 million tons of fly ash annually.

During the decision process, the EPA studied two prominent beneficial uses of CCRs — the use of fly ash in concrete and synthetic gypsum in wallboard — and found them to be as safe as non-CCR-based products. The agency believes that these beneficial uses provide significant opportunities to advance sustainability. Its support for using fly ash in concrete sends a powerful signal that coal ash should be viewed as a safe and valuable resource for sustainable building practices.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-in-Chief