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Coal Ash Regulation: Another Front on the ‘War Against Coal’

“For three years the Environmental Protection Agency has imposed a de facto ban on new coal-fired power while doing everything it can to harm existing coal plants.”

- Killing Coal,” Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2012.

Unhappy with the speed of EPA regulation of coal combustion by-products, a number of environmental organizations recently filed a lawsuit to force EPA to finalize regulation of coal ash.

A natural byproduct of the combustion process for coal-fired power plants, coal ash is typically stored onsite at power plants or sold on the open market for use in the production of concrete and other materials. In 2010, EPA proposed a pair of regulatory approaches for dealing with coal ash, but has to yet to decide how to regulate the material.

Nearly a dozen groups were party to the lawsuit, including the Sierra Club, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and the Environmental Integrity Project. 1 The lawsuit comes just days after the EPA announced plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector, which the New York Times characterized as EPA’s movement toward “closing out the era of old-fashioned coal-burning power generation.” So much for Obama’s all-of-the-above energy policy.

Perils of Coal Ash as Hazardous Waste

In its lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that EPA is violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) by not including coal ash among the substances it regulates. The organizations are demanding that EPA regulate coal ash under Subtitle C of the RCRA, the title that deals with hazardous waste. A superior option being explored by EPA would regulate coal ash under Subtitle D of the RCRA, allowing states to adopt rules at their own discretion.

It is no surprise that groups with a stated mission of shutting down our nation’s use of coal for electricity would file such a lawsuit, because they understand that coal ash regulations present huge financial and logistical burdens for utilities. The problem is these organizations have no real solutions for keeping the lights on and power bills affordable.

My organization, the Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy (PACE), has written extensively about coal ash regulation, citing a study from Veritas Economic Consulting published in June 2011 that warned that EPA’s coal-ash proposals could result in as many as 316,000 total job losses and up to $110 billion in unnecessary costs in the next 20 years.

The study adds that while the strictest EPA coal ash rules could cost as many as 7,600 jobs in the power generation sector due to premature coal unit retirements, the greatest job impact will be felt from higher electricity prices caused by the rules. In fact, the Veritas study finds that higher power bills could result in the loss of as many as 261,900 jobs across the United States.

“It is a fear that our regulatory compliance folks and our environmental folks are looking at very carefully that if [coal ash] is determined to be a hazardous waste, now your options for storage are dramatically reduced,” says Gary Brinkworth, Manager of Capacity Planning with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), in Unplugged.

Logistical Nightmare?

Chief among the concerns of utility portfolio planners like Brinkworth is the scarcity of landfills permitted under Subtitle C of the RCRA to accept hazardous waste. In fact, only twenty-one sites nationwide are licensed to accept hazardous waste. Most states, in fact, have no storage capacity for Subtitle C hazardous waste, creating a potential logistical nightmare for utilities currently generating thousands of tons of coal ash daily.

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With few existing options for storage, PACE speculates that utilities will likely be faced with the option of either building there own on-site hazardous waste landfill facilities (an expensive option that is physically impossible at some power plants) or replacing coal-fired capacity with some other energy resource such as natural gas.

Conclusion

The public needs to understand that half of the 130 million tons of coal ash being generated each year ends up in places like our roads and our carpet. The rest is being stored safely under close supervision. There is a way to handle coal ash that protects the public while not taking almost half of America’s power generation off the grid. Let’s hope the courts and policymakers have the wisdom to acknowledge that fact.

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1 The twelve groups are Appalachian Voices; Chesapeake Climate Action Network; Environmental Integrity Project; Kentuckians for the Commonwealth; Montana Environmental Information Center; Moapa Band of Paiutes; Prairie Rivers Network; Physicians for Social Responsibility; Southern Alliance for Clean Energy; Sierra Club; and Western North Carolina Alliance.

6 comments

1 Jon Boone { 04.16.12 at 8:42 am }

PACE’s take on the overreach of the EPA is measured and correct. The agency has become so politicized over the last 20 twenty years that it is now a barnacled thing–clumsy to the point of goofiness. Few things illustrate this better than its stance on coal ash.

On the other hand, PACE itself could do with some house cleaning, perhaps in the spirit of the British government re renewables:http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7786463/downfall.thtml. Does PACE really subscribe to its website’s description of wind technology, for example, where it state’s wind capacity factor is 44%: http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7786463/downfall.thtml?

PACE should rightly be concerned about the need for capacity generation in the production of electricity. But when it states that we “need” all of the above, including capacity-less wind and solar, it’s engaging in rhetorical excess that hurts its own cause. The former especially is dysfunctional as a source of power.

PACE could do better without partnering with dysfunction for the purpose of political correctness. And if coal is to weather the storm from such as the EPA, it needs to get some backbone about wind. For too many people believe, falsely, that wind can replace coal (viz, The Sierra Club and Greenpeace). It’s a preposterous proposition. But as long as King Coal itself indulges this fantasy it will continue.

2 lbrown { 04.16.12 at 9:18 am }

Jon, I appreciate your comment and thank you for taking the time to engage in this debate and visit PACE’s website. Although you are certainly entitled to your own opinion about wind power, I need to set the record straight that PACE has been a consistent critic of wind power projects that present poor value for power consumers. You might have seen this blog post from a few days ago, in fact, about Nevada customers who apparently overpaid for wind power.

http://energyfairness.org/2012/04/nevada-ratepayers-left-twisting-in-the-wind/

PACE exists to advocate for energy policies that make sense for electricity customers, not to label forms of energy superior or inferior. In our experience and research, however, we have found few large scale renewable power projects that fit the bill of providing a level of reliability and affordability that can rival traditional baseload sources such as coal and nuclear power. PACE describes itself as energy agnostic, but that certainly does not mean we do not fight aggressively against policies that present poor bargains for consumers. I hope this clarification of PACE’s role provides a better understanding.

Lance Brown
Executive Director

3 Jon Boone { 04.16.12 at 9:35 am }

Well, Lance, since wind provides no modern “power,” everyone overpays for it. I looked carefully at PACE’s website and I watched its documentary, Unplugged. Let me again state the PACE should be promoting capacity resources, not pretenders, and it should not be about the business of touting that society needs all energy sources in a quest to be independent. The latter is not going to happen–nor should it. We should have electricity that is abundant, cheap, reliable, and secure. Wind and solar technologies subvert each one of those goals.

So why not say so.

4 Lance Brown: Coal Ash Regulation: Another Front on the ‘War Against Coal’ | JunkScience.com { 04.17.12 at 2:31 am }

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5 Don Koza { 04.21.12 at 10:09 pm }

Do the EPA proposed regulations consider waste coal piles (residue of coal processing plants, poor coal and coal mixed with overburden – surrounding rock) that pollute the air and surface water? These waste coal piles often slowly smolder in place, causing air pollution. As storm water percolates through the waste coal piles, it becomes acidic and dissolves heavy metals and other toxins. This polluted storm water then finds its way into runoff ponds where the acid is neutralized, but the other toxins are not removed. The “treatment pond” discharges into streams and rivers, carrying the dissolved metals and toxins with it. This waste coal can be used as fuel in fluid bed boilers to generate steam for electric power production. Combustion takes place at a relatively low temperature where many compounds in the coal and coal ash never disassociate or breakdown into toxic forms. Excess pulverized limestone is blown into the furnace where it is calcined and combines with SO2 and other potential acid gas forming elements insitu, and the excess lime combines with the coal ash. The lime makes the coal ash alkaline and the ash behaves like lean concrete. Such ash passes stringent leachate tests and can be safely landfilled above the water table. This fluid bed combustion ash has been such landfill by federal regulation and regulations of several state laws. I sincerely hope the environmental groups that are pushing EPA for tighter regulation of coal combustion residue don’t discourage combustion of the countless waste coal piles that exist wherever coal is mined and processed. Ironically, this would cause continued pollution of our air and water.

6 Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup | Watts Up With That? { 04.22.12 at 3:13 pm }

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