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Coal ash or coal ass – some Random Facts | Pamdemonium
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Coal ash or coal ass – some Random Facts

June 6, 2010

Random Fact is wading into the messy subject of coal ash – a byproduct of coal-fired power plants – with interesting tidbits while trying to swim around the politics of regulating the material.

Few people outside of environmentalists, regulators and the energy and utility industries had even heard of “coal ash” when a TVA storage pond Kingston, Tenn., failed in December 2008, spewing 5.4 million cubic yards of the stuff into nearby homes, rivers and lakes. The U.S. Environmental Agency promised a close look and new proposed regulations – the material, to date, had been treated as municipal waste, with regulation left to individual states.

The spill in Tennessee: Wet and yucky.

Interested parties waited 1½ years for the EPA to speak, which it did, sort of, in late April. The agency proposed to different regulatory schemes for public comment. One would treat the material as hazardous waste and put it under federal jurisdiction; the second would treat the material as it has been but add additional safeguards and recommendations for states to follow, if they choose.

So everyone is still waiting.

This ditty is not going to get into whether the stuff is toxic or not. Plenty of others have strong opinions on the matter. What surprised me was the scope of the industry that recycles coal ash. Consider:

• In 2007, the United States produced 131 million tons of coal combustion products, of which coal ash is a major component. That year, 43 percent of the material was recycled and power producers disposed of nearly 75 million tons. Since 2000, the U.S. has recycled more than 360 tons.

• Coal fly ash is a big component of cement and is used, as is, in ready mix production.

Coal ash en route to a second life, or third, as concrete.

• Bottom ash, which is heavier and similar in form to sand and gravel, is in concrete blocks, shingles, asphalt, flowable fill and bricks.

• Thirty percent of wallboard made in the United States uses “flue gas desulfurization materials,” another waste product from coal-fired plants, reducing the need to mine gypsum.

• The term of art is “beneficial reuse” of coal combustion products, at least to the industry. It is an estimated $7 billion annual enterprise.

And, in one of life’s perfect ironies, the Green Building Initiative (GBI) and U.S. Green Build¬ing Council (USGBC) both support use of fly ash in concrete as a product that contains recycled materials. Construction of EPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., used concrete containing coal ash.

Random Fact knew none of this until doing a story on the EPA proposals for EnergyBiz, which will be out in a month. Bad, good, toxic, safe – the debate will continue.

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