GMA pushes on for coal ash containment liners
(Roseville, MN - August 12, 2010) The advocacy work begun by the Geosynthetic Materials Association last year continues to advance the cause of the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash under the nation's primary law for regulating solid waste, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
Putting protective controls such as geosynthetic liners and groundwater monitoring in place at new and existing landfills will protect groundwater and human health.
The proposed regulations will ensure stronger oversight of the structural integrity of impoundments in order to prevent accidents like the one at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, where waste had been accumulating for half a century. The mountain of sludge covered more than 100 acres and rose 65 feet into the air before an earthen dam burst, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of ash that inundated homes and about 300 acres, as well as a river.
On July 22nd, a hearing was conducted by the U.S. House of Representatives Rural Development, Entrepreneurship and Trade Subcommittee of the House Small Business Committee titled, "Coal Combustion Byproducts: Potential Impact of a Hazardous Waste Designation on Small Businesses in the Recycling Industry."
During this hearing, Rep. Glenn Thomson (R-Pa.) issued the following statement and question which define geosynthetics and their role in as a part of a reliable solution: "Geosynthetics are a class of products that provide solutions for the safe storage of Coal Combustion Residuals (CCRs) until the CCRs can be reused.
"Geosynthetic materials include liners such as geomembranes and geosynthetic clay liners, structural reinforcement using geotextiles and geogrids, and drainage applications using geocomposite drains.
"Concerns of safety regarding CCRs are mitigated if the landfill storage sites are lined and the leachate is prevented from entering the environment.
"Safety concerns of surface impoundments are also mitigated if the impoundments are lined with geomembranes or geosynthetic clay liners. The structural integrity of impoundment levees and walls are greatly increased using geotextile and geogrid reinforcement. "Geocomposite drainage systems draw the water out of the CCR slurry in the surface impoundment, rendering the material into a more solid, stable state.
"Applying these geosynthetic solutions to the storage of CCRs keeps them in a secure safe state until the CCRs can be recycled in the production of cement and wallboard or as structural fill and road base applications.
"Since it appears the future of the CCR beneficial use industry and the livelihoods of those employed in the industry is predicated on the safe, secure handling and storage of CCRs, and that since the geosynthetics solutions outlined above provide for the safe secure storage of CCRs, do you support mandating of the use of these geosynthetics systems by Congress and/or the EPA in regards to CCR containment?"
Rep. Thomson's question was posed to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Assistant Administrator Lisa Feldt, who was a witness at the hearing. She responded positively regarding geosynthetic materials, saying that geosynthetic liners are valuable and will be implemented in the new coal-ash disposal rules.
According to Andrew Aho, Division Manager of Geosynthetic Materials Association, "This hearing was significant because geosynthetics were highlighted as a solution before members of Congress and key waste and recycling industry officials. This will have a very important impact on the recycling industry, and the EPA's Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for coal ash regulations."
What is coal ash?
Coal combustion residuals (CCRs), commonly known as Coal Ash, are byproducts of the combustion of coal at power plants and are disposed of in liquid form at large surface impoundments and in solid form at landfills. These residuals contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic associated with cancer and various other serious health effects.
EPA's risk assessment and damage cases demonstrate that, without proper protections, these contaminants can leach into groundwater and often migrate to drinking water sources, posing public significant health concerns.
Why companies recycle and reuse coal ash
The extraction of raw materials from the earth for any product or human activity consumes energy, generates greenhouse gases, decreases the availability of virgin resources, and impacts water resources.
To the benefit of human health and the environment, recycling and use of waste materials avoid disposal and decrease these and other adverse impacts.
Coal ash is primarily composed of basic minerals like calcium, silica, iron, and aluminum, which are valuable minerals that can be put to beneficial use in many ways that are safe and protective.
Current beneficial uses for coal ash
Coal ash can be reused in two forms -- encapsulated (bound into a product) or unencapsulated.
Encapsulated: EPA believes there are important benefits to the environment and the economy from the use of coal ash in encapsulated form, such as in wallboard, concrete, roofing materials and bricks, where the coal ash is bound into products. Environmental benefits from these types of uses include greenhouse gas reduction, energy conservation, reduction in land disposal, and reduction in the need to mine/process virgin materials. We have no data showing that encapsulated uses pose a problem for human health or the environment.
One of the most widely recognized beneficial applications of coal ash is the use of coal fly ash as a substitute for portland cement in the manufacture of concrete. The use of coal ash increases the durability of concrete and the process generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions. For each ton of fly ash that is substituted for portland cement, approximately one ton of greenhouse emissions are avoided.
Unencapsulated: Unencapsulated uses are those where coal ash is in a loose or unbound particulate or sludge form. EPA has identified concerns with some land-based uses of unencapsulated coal ash, particularly when proper engineering standards have not been met. The Agency is soliciting comment on whether to regulate unencapsulated uses and, if so, the most appropriate regulatory approach to be taken.
EPA considers certain uses, such as coal ash as fill in sand and gravel pits, and other large scale fill operations, as disposal and not as "beneficial use."
About the Geosynthetic Materials Association (GMA)...
GMA, a division of the Industrial Fabrics Association International, centers on the success of its members in five areas: Engineering support; business development, education, government relations; and geosynthetics industry recognition.