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  • Josh Shkrab

The Beneficial Aspects of Recycling Coal Ash

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2273) was successfully passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday October 14. The bill was sponsored and introduced in the House by Rep. David McKinley from West Virginia on June 22 of this year. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection secretary Michael Krancer issued a letter on Thursday October 14, urging U.S. Congressional officials from Pennsylvania to vote in favor of the legislation. If passed and signed into law, the Act would serve as an amendment to subtitle D of the Solid Waste Disposal Act, which would facilitate the recovery and beneficial use of materials generated from the combustion of coal or other fossil fuel sources. The U.S. EPA is currently pushing for materials generated from the combustion of coal and fossil fuels to be classified as hazardous waste, allowing them to become the sole regulators, not individual states.

Individual states currently possess regulatory authority over disposal or reuse of any materials that are generated from the combustion process. The state of Pennsylvania has been utilizing the beneficial reuse capabilities of coal ash for many years and in a multitude of ways. Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is one of several residues produced from the coal combustion process. Fly ash is typically captured through emission control technologies installed at coal-fired power facilities. Traditionally, the fly ash had been collected and disposed of in specially designed landfills or it is stored in large impoundments, where it is kept wet to prevent air dispersal. Pennsylvania has been reusing the fly ash, as opposed to conventional disposal methods, for various projects that include abandoned mine reclamation, acid mine drainage, and agricultural fertilization. The fly ash, when properly managed, can serve as a backfill material for abandoned open and underground coal mines, effectively transforming scarred terrain into more aesthetically pleasing landscapes. Recycling fly ash also eliminates the need for impoundment pools, which tragically claimed the life of an eleven-year-old boy who was swimming in the abandoned mine pool in Shenandoah, PA in 1994.

Secretary Krancer cited an economic survey conducted by an independent firm in his letter which claimed that classification of fly ash as a hazardous waste could result in the loss of 183,000 to 316,000 jobs nationwide. Additionally, the study concluded that the decision could cost the nation an estimated $78.9 to $110 billion over the next 20 years. These estimates are based on the cost associated with disposing of fly ash in landfills, including transportation and other related expenditures. From an environmental standpoint, the recycling of fly ash reduces carbon dioxide emissions, a noxious greenhouse gas (GHG), by eliminating the need for new energy from sources such as coal. Since 2000, EPA has calculated a reduction of approximately 117 million tons of carbon dioxide from recycling fly ash.

The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act will now proceed to the Senate, where a vote will be scheduled. If passed by the Senate, it will then move to the President’s desk where it will be signed or vetoed.

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