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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Managing Coal Combustion Waste (CCW): Issues with Disposal and Use

Linda Luther
Analyst in Environmental Policy

In 2008, coal-fired power plants accounted for almost half of the United States' electric power, resulting in as much as 136 millions tons of coal combustion waste (CCW). On December 22, 2008, national attention was turned to issues regarding the waste when a breach in an impoundment pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA's) Kingston, Tennessee, plant released 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry. The estimated cleanup cost will likely reach $1.2 billion. 

The characteristics of CCW vary, but it generally contains a range of heavy metals such as arsenic, beryllium, chromium, lead, and mercury. While the incident at Kingston drew national attention to the potential for a sudden catastrophic release of waste, the primary concern regarding the management of CCW usually relates to the potential for hazardous constituents to leach into surface or groundwater, and hence contaminate drinking water, surface water, or living organisms. The presence of hazardous constituents in the waste does not, by itself, mean that they will contaminate the surrounding air, ground, groundwater, or surface water. There are many complex physical and biogeochemical factors that influence the degree to which heavy metals can dissolve and migrate offsite—such as the mass of toxins in the waste and the degree to which water is able to flow through it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that arsenic and lead and other carcinogens have leached into groundwater and exceeded safe limits when CCW is disposed of in unlined disposal units. 

In addition to discussions regarding the potential harm to human health and the environment, the Kingston release brought attention to the fact that the management of CCW is essentially exempt from federal regulation. Instead, it is regulated in accordance with requirements established by individual states. State requirements generally apply to two broad categories of actions—the disposal of CCW (in landfills, surface impoundment, or mines) and its beneficial use (e.g., as a component in concrete, cement, or gypsum wallboard, or as structural or embankment fill). 

In May 2000, partly as a result of inconsistencies in state requirements, EPA determined that national regulations regarding CCW disposal were needed. To date, regulations have not been proposed. However, on March 9, 2009, EPA stated that regulations to address CCW disposal in landfills and surface impoundments would be proposed by the end of 2009. Also, in March 2007, an advance notice of proposed rulemaking regarding the disposal of CCW in mines was released by the Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining (OSM). Draft rules have not yet been proposed. With regard to potential uses of CCW, EPA has stated that there have been few studies that would definitively prove that certain uses of CCW are safe, but that its use should include certain precautions to ensure adequate groundwater protection. It is unknown whether regulations regarding beneficial uses of CCW will be included in the upcoming rulemaking. 

Some Members of Congress and other stakeholders have expressed concern regarding how CCW will ultimately be regulated. Among other issues, there is concern that the upcoming regulations will be either too far-reaching, and hence costly, or not far-reaching enough—meaning that they will not establish consistent, enforceable, minimal federal requirements applicable to CCW disposal units. On December 17, 2009, EPA issued a statement that its pending decision on regulating CCW would be delayed for a "short period due to the complexity of the analysis the agency is currently finishing."

Date of Report: January 12, 2010
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: R40544
Price: $29.95

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