EPA report deems fly ash safe for walls, concrete

WHEELING – A report released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declares coal ash safe for reuse in certain construction materials – providing coal industry supporters a measure of hope as the agency prepares to issue its first-ever regulations on the substance.

The EPA has for some time now been considering classifying coal ash – a byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity – as a hazardous material, citing contaminants such as mercury, arsenic and cadmium. Earlier this month, it announced a self-imposed deadline of Dec. 19 to take action.

Coal ash recently drew attention when 82,000 tons of it spilled into the Dan River in North Carolina earlier this month. Water samples revealed arsenic levels beyond those considered safe for prolonged contact.

According to the EPA, slightly more than half of coal ash – also called “fly” ash – is disposed of in landfills or surface impoundments. Much of the rest is recycled for use in everyday materials such as concrete and wallboard – and even in small amounts in cosmetics, toothpaste and a host of other substances.

“EPA’s evaluation concluded that the beneficial use of encapsulated (coal combustion residuals) in concrete and wallboard is appropriate because they are comparable to virgin materials or below the agency’s health and environmental benchmarks,” according to a statement from the agency.

Preventing the EPA from declaring coal ash, or “fly” ash, a hazardous substance has been a focus for Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, since he was first elected to Congress in 2010. According to McKinley, the proposed EPA regulations would make the substance extremely difficult to dispose of and nearly impossible to sell to those who would reuse it.

“We applaud this decision by the EPA which will help provide more certainty for the 316,000 workers directly impacted by coal ash and its safe disposal and use,” McKinley said. “This decision reinforces the need for the Senate to take action and pass a legislative solution now.”

The McKinley-authored Coal Residuals and Reuse Management Act of 2013, which passed the GOP-controlled House in July but was never taken up in the Democrat-controlled Senate, would subject all coal ash impoundments to a permitting process and require groundwater monitoring at all structures that receive the material. But it would allow states to regulate the material themselves – with the provision that the EPA could step in if it determines that state programs are deficient, using a set of objective criteria.

“This gives states the authority to set their own standards for the disposal of coal ash with oversight by the EPA,” McKinley said of the bill.