The regulatory battle over coal fly ash heats up

The DeSmogBlog recently published an article detailing how coal industry representatives had dozens of secretive meetings with White House officials before the process was opened for public input.

The process in question was regarding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations regarding fly ash, one of the wastes created by coal-fired power plants. Fly ash is the remains of the coal after it is burnt. Fly ash is toxic enough that the EPA mandated decades ago that it be captured and stored rather than emitted into the atmosphere.

Fly ash is kept in storage away from humans and ecosystems because of the substantial damage it can do if it is released. It is also educational to keep in mind that fly ash is not the only inherent danger of coal-fired electricity. There are a number of other ways in which coal power damages ecosystems and human heath.

The coal industry has had a history of lobbying against a hazardous waste label for fly ash.1 2 Government agencies will sometimes hold non-open meetings with stakeholders such as related industries who have a large interest in projects and legislation as well as expertise to bear on the topic. Other stakeholders include citizenry and citizen groups. These consultations can be done in a fair manner, but they can also be conducted in a manner that creates an imbalance of influence on legislation, or a perception of such.

There seems to have been a reduction in the amount of knowledge available to the public regarding the health and radioactive effects of fly ash, particularly when recycled into projects and products (UPDATE May 26th, 2011: We had a link to an article about recycled fly ash here. It has since been taken down from the blog that it was on.). Changes in regulations surrounding fly ash could have far reaching consequences. For instance, they may hamper the recycling of fly ash into products as well as requiring a redraft of legislation surrounding the proper disposal of fly ash. It is important that more stringent fly ash regulations be phased in over time to allow for the industry to adjust. There are technical and economic issues to consider with changes to legislation with such far-reaching effects. Bluntly put, we cannot turn off our coal plants overnight or the lights will go off.

It is also important that new regulations be based on the best and most complete scientific data available. Coal must find its proper place in the future based on good science based risk assessments, not unscientific fear-based journalism or people overplaying the economic downsides of change.

Decisions about future health should be based on what is correct, not what is convenient. The  mfeasibility of coal is directly related to the harm it causes to human and ecological health. There are of course practical considerations for a transition away from coal. Federally mandated (EPA regulations) should consider phasing in regulations more gradually or otherwise easing the process in states most dependant on coal, as the cost of implementation will be greatest there.

Some industry concerns raised are valid and worth consideration, such as the costs associated with stopping the recycling of flyash into other products such as road filler and cement. This recycling meanings that approximately 40% of ash production does not require long term storage. However, additional scientific efforts should be made to study the health and environmental risks of these uses. If it is found that coal ash can not be recycled in good conscience then this practice must also be ended.

There are however some concerns raised by coal industry representatives that we consider invalid. One example is the fear that regulations could hurt the competiveness of coal power in de-regulated markets. Regulations would be designed to make coal internalize some of the costs to the system that are currently externalities. This adjustment would create a more fair market, since coal-fired electricity would bear closer to its true cost.

The rising price of coal would help phase in more environmentally responsible electrical sources. Several forms of renewable energy (when implemented in favorable areas) are currently close to being cost-competitive with coal already, such as hydrowind, and solar thermal power. Forcing coal to internalize some of its human health and ecosystem costs will raise its price enough that these technologies may begin to seriously compete with coal on cost and eventually replace it on the large scale.

  1. EPA Backed Off ‘Hazardous’ Label for Coal Ash After White House Review. The New York Times. Accessed October 27th, 2010. []
  2. White House, EPA at Odds Over Coal-Waste Rules. Wall Street Journal. Accessed October 27th, 2010. []

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

2 thoughts to “The regulatory battle over coal fly ash heats up”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *