Coal Ash Regulation: The Name Game

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"Coal ash—'hazardous' or 'nonhazardous' waste'?"

What's in a name? Would coal ash labeled as "special" hazardous waste be as easily recycled as that labeled nonhazardous?

That debate was sparked by the EPA's potential plan to change coal combustion residuals' current 'nonhazardous waste' status under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act's (RCRA) Subtitle D. Existing coal ash regulations are now undergoing close scrutiny.

Prompted by safety and environmental concerns, on May 4 the EPA issued a two-option proposal: Either regulate coal ash as a nonhazardous waste under Subtitle D with additional tougher management and disposal regulations or regulate these materials as a "special" hazardous waste under RCRA's Subtitle C, but allow it to still be eligible for recycling and reuse in products like cement. Public comments will be accepted until September 20.

Not surprisingly, national trade groups representing investor-owned utilities, municipal power companies and rural electric cooperatives don't agree with the EPA's plan to create a "special waste" category for coal ash if it chooses a hazardous waste determination.

"EPA might want to call it something else, but Subtitle C is a hazardous waste," said Jim Roewer whose firm represents Edison Electric, American Public Power and National the Rural Electric Cooperative.

In stark contrast to the industry groups' position, leading environmental organizations strongly support regulating coal ash as a special waste under Subtitle C.

In a recent joint statement, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Environmental Integrity Project and others said, "The EPA's 'special waste' proposal is the only way to guarantee the closure of the most dangerous waste ponds; ensure strong federal oversight and cleanup of contaminated streams, rivers and drinking water supplies; and protect communities from coal ash contamination."

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