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Environmentalists: EPA overstated coal ash benefits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration has greatly overstated the possible economic benefits of recycling toxic coal ash, a move that is delaying - and could possibly scuttle altogether -- tougher regulations on the handling and disposal of power plant wastes, according to a report from a coalition of environmental groups.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering the new rules in the wake of the December 2008 collapse of a coal-ash impoundment in Tennessee and growing citizen concern about similar dumps around the nation.

Industry officials and some within the White House are concerned about one possible approach, in which EPA would label coal-ash a "hazardous waste" to be fully regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Opponents say this path would hurt the market for reuse of coal ash in products like cement and wallboard. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is among those who have complained to the EPA about the potential impacts.

Cost-benefit figures included in the EPA's rulemaking proposal estimate that coal-ash recycling is worth about $23 billion a year. However, that estimate is more than 20 times higher than the $1.15 billion the government's own data show is the correct bottom-line number, according to the new report issued this week by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Stockholm Environmental Institute's U.S. Center at Tufts University.

"The deep flaws in the EPA cost-benefit analysis appear to have escaped scrutiny at the White House Office of Management and Budget, which required [the] EPA to include a weaker coal-ash proposal favored by utilities and some coal-ash recyclers," the groups said.

"Common sense and past experience indicate that stricter standards for disposal will work to increase, rather than decrease recycling," the groups said. "But either way, [the] EPA ought not to be intimidated into adopting weak rules based on grossly inflated values for coal-ash recycling."

Among the flaws identified by the environmental groups in the EPA's estimate:

  • About half of the coal-ash recycling benefits claimed by the EPA are based on assumptions that substituting fly ash for 15 percent of U.S. cement production would cut fine-particle emissions by more than 26,000 metric tons per year. The EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, however, has estimated that the entire cement kiln industry releases just more than 15,000 metric tons per year.
  • The EPA estimated that recycling fly ash in cement kilns saves $4.9 billion in energy costs, but the agency's Office of Radiation, in a separate regulatory report, estimates total energy costs for the entire industry at no more than $1.7 billion.
  • "Unfortunately, [the] EPA and OMB just got this wrong," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "The 'regulatory impact analysis' prepared by [the] EPA to support its proposal exaggerates the economic left cycle value of coal-ash recycling, which could end up stacking the deck in favor of the weaker regulatory option favored by industry."

    Coal-fired power plants generate more than 130 million tons of various ash wastes every year. The numbers have been increasing as more plants install scrubbers and other equipment to control air pollution, but shift the toxic leftovers from burning coal into ash and other wastes. By 2015, the annual amount of coal ash generated at U.S. plants is expected to increase to 175 million tons, a jump of more than a third.

    No single national program sets up a concrete regulatory plan for the handling of those "coal combustion wastes." Instead, the nation relies on a patchwork of state programs that vary in terms of their standards and their level of enforcement.

    The issue simmered for years, with little focus from political leaders, until the spill of a billion gallons of coal ash -- containing an estimated 2.9 million pounds of toxic pollutants -- from a Tennessee Valley Authority plant two years ago.

    Despite initial tough talk on the issue, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson issued a regulatory proposal that did not settle on a particular strategy. The EPA sought public comment on one approach that would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, with nationwide regulations, oversight and enforcement, and an alternative that would leave actual regulation mostly up to the states.

    Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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