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October 8th, 2010
06:09 AM ET

EPA on Coal Ash: Economic Fallout

By Carol Costello and Ronni Berke, CNN

Chuck Newell runs the National Gypsum Plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. His company makes drywall: in fact, National Gypsum's drywall could be in your home right now. National Gypsum is proudly "green." All of the drywall manufactured there is made of synthetic gypsum - a substance recycled from material taken directly from First Energy Corporation's nearby Bruce Mansfield power plant after it burns coal to make electricity.

In a good year, Newell says, the plant will operate 24/7, using an excess of 800,000 tons of material. But after the housing crisis forced him to cut his plant's operations to just three days a week, Newell is worried things might get even worse.

His "green company" may go bust because the EPA is considering whether to label all waste from coal burning plants - like coal ash and synthetic gypsum - hazardous."Our biggest concern is that if we are qualified in with the rest of the material that comes from the power plant, as hazardous, or even if we're given an offset category that our product may be tainted," Newell says. The stigma, he fears, will stick.

Here is one reason why: Little Blue Run, FirstEnergy's 976-acre retention pond, where tons of coal ash ends up. Coal ash contains arsenic,cadmium and lead - substances that can cause cancer.

Neighbors fear the stuff is seeping into the ground water and into their underground wells. Both the Pennyslvania Department of Environmental Protection and FirstEnergy say Little Blue has not contaminated any residential drinking well.

National Gypsum doesn't get any of its raw material from Little Blue. The synthetic gypsum comes from taking waste from smokestack gases, and passing it through limestone slurry, to create gypsum. Combining gypsum with recycled paper creates the plant's drywall.

Newell is sympathetic to those who want tougher restrictions on coal ash, but says not all waste from the burning of coal is hazardous. According to the EPA, synthetic gypsum poses no health risks. "There's nothing hazardous about it, it's the equivalent of natural gypsum that you mine in a quarry," Newell says. It is so ubiquitous, Newell adds, it is even found in the offices of the EPA in Washington. The EPA should make a final decision on whether to label coal waste hazardous next year. It estimates the cost of adopting the proposal that changes coal ash to "hazardous" waste to be about $1.5 billion dollars - but says the costs will be offset by health and other benefits. Most of the initial costs would likely be passed on to consumers, both the EPA and power industry officials say.

Filed under: Environment
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. Adam

    Clean coal? Never. No matter what is done to the byproducts of burning coal, there is simply no such thing. The methods by which coal is extracted from the earth are destructive to not only the land scarred by mining, but also by the sediment flowing into waterways and choking these ecosystems to death. The coal industry touts sequestering carbon dioxide and burying it in the ground. Right. This is a living earth, subject to shifts in the crust, thus risking the release of potentially millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere at once. And, of course, there's the ash, absolutely rife with poisonous heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and cadmium. These are elements, and not subject to being broken down into anything harmless.

    I fully understand that alternative solutions have to be found to fuel America's future, but solutions that are this damaging to the health of the earth and its inhabitants are not solutions, they're excuses to turn our fragile planet into profit.

    October 9, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  2. Samantha

    Little Blue got it's name because it used to be as blue as a tropical ocean.

    That pic shows how blue it was. And that wasn't doctored at all. We used to drive by it all the time.
    There is nothing living anywhere in the lake. It's scary because my family and I live so close to it. Considering that and the hazerdous waste plant nearby, I think we're all pretty much screwed.

    October 8, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  3. Meleesa Johnson

    When one looks at the analytical data of coal ash, one will discover that the concentrations of arsenic, cadmium or any other compound is, in most cases, exponentially below the federal hazardous or toxic regulations. When managed properly, through benficial reuse, as in drywall or concrete production, or disposed of in double-lined RCRA Subtitle D (municipal solid waste) landfill, coal ash will not and has not caused harm to human health or the environment. If coal ash is categorized as hazardous, then all coal ash will be required to be disposed of in RCRA Subtitle C (hazardous) landfills...and there are not enough of these landfills to managed the large volume.

    For instance, in Wisconsin there are no Subtitle C landfills. The nearest is in Michigan. so, the several million ton of coal ash produced in Wisconsin, 85% of which is now benificially reused (recycled) will have to be transported to Michigan. That is unless new hazardous waste landfills are sited.

    The management of coal ash can be done through RCRA Subtitle D (and the rigerous landfill siting and construction standards, as are enforced in Wisconsin). The entire issue related to coal ash is not that it is hazardous, it is that if categorized as solid waste under Subtitle D, the EPA has little authority to enforce (states are given this authority...some doing a poor job). If categorized as hazardous, then the EPA will have complete authority,under Subtitle C, to regulate and enforce.

    This is a word game that will not magically change the amount of coal ash produced. It will not change the fact that coal ash is not hazardous, as defined by law. It will however change the landscape of countless communities, as more and more hazardous waste landfills are sited to accomodate coal ash.

    October 8, 2010 at 9:13 am |
  4. Brian Webber

    As an environmentalist and a manufacturer in N.A. I am keenly aware of the issues affecting businesses such as National Gypsum and Little Blue. Scrubbing coal fired plant emissions to remove toxins is treating a symptom of a much larger issue as China opens one coal fired plant every two weeks with much less emission control technology than we use in N.A. The fact that byproducts of the burning of coal are being used to manufacture a product that is widely used in the building industry is very commendable and does deserve an exception to the proposed EPA regs only if the overall result is reduced/eliminated emissions that will ultimately reduce the cost of health care and improve life expectancies in those areas directly affected by the emissions. That said, if we had a cap and trade system all concerned would have the opportunity to offset emissions and the true cost of energy production would be with the producers and users. The monetization of green house gases (GHG) is inevitable and necessary to place fiscal responsiblities on the emittters and the consumers.

    And yes, energy costs will increase no matter what we do, distributed green energy initiatives are alive and well and growing in popularity much like their sister successes in Germany and other European countries. These initiatives increase our energy costs in the short term while removing coal fired operations from the grid in the long term. We have to pay the true cost of energy, we haven't been, our health care and EPA taxes have been.

    Ultimately all coal fired plants have to be closed or technology has to be applied to scrubbing emissions and treating tailings so they become either a neutral or positive component of our environment.

    October 8, 2010 at 9:07 am |
  5. joe bob

    So a few people are poisoned. The important thing is that our utility bills stay low and busnessmen keep making profits. Hungary anyone?

    October 8, 2010 at 8:53 am |