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Tr-Ash Talk: Coal Numbers Don’t Add Up

The American Coal Ash Association is trying with might to mislead us.

The American Coal Ash Association is trying with might to mislead us. In a recent press release, they exaggerated the impact the Environmental Protection Agency’s rulemaking process is having on coal ash recycling, claiming a decrease in the recycling of combustion waste from coal plants since the EPA started work on a coal ash rule.The industry group stated the recycling rate “stalled in 2008 and 2009 as EPA reopened its coal ash regulatory agenda following the failure of a coal ash disposal facility in Tennessee.” 

However, the collapse of the TVA pond occurred in December 2008, and thus would have had no impact whatsoever on recycling rates that year.  The truth of the matter is that recycling rates fell in this period largely because of a downturn in the construction industry.

As Tufts University economist Frank Ackerman recently explained:

The industry has missed the obvious explanation for these trends. … In the economic boom before 2008, construction grew more rapidly than electricity generation, so markets for ash reuse expanded relative to the supply. In the crash after 2008, the reverse was true: construction declined more steeply than electricity generation, so reuse markets shrank relative to ash supply.

While this is clearly the best explanation, industry groups in a December Greenwire article stated that the threat of a hazardous waste moniker for coal ash is keeping the material away from construction projects and agriculture.  However, when one examines the ACAA data, there is an actual 10 percent increase in the total amount of fly ash recycled into concrete from 2009 to 2010, and an increase of 5 percent in the amount of FGD gypsum incorporated into wallboard.  The loser in the “recycling” categories is mine filling—a practice that is not recycling at all, but usually thinly disguised dumping.  A decrease in the amount of coal ash dumped in mines of 14.6 percent from 2009 to 2010 is a step forward for pubic health and the environment.

Further, the largest manager and marketer of coal combustion products agrees that the decrease in construction has depressed coal ash markets.  In its first quarter earnings announcement this week, the CEO of Headwaters, Inc., explained that “product revenues continue to be impacted by lower cement consumption in … the 3 largest cement-consuming regions in the United States." Despite this weakness, Headwaters revealed product revenues were up by 6 percent year-over-year.

Ackerman questions the current slowing “down (of) the snail’s pace of current environmental regulation” and instead paying “more attention to industry as it bemoans the cost of compliance.”

There is one thing, however, that we can all agree on. “We are about to enter the fourth year of an EPA rulemaking process that seems to have no end in sight,” said Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association.

Clearly, the failure of the EPA to finalize a coal ash rule is bad for public health, the environment and recycling.