Coal Ash Utilization Surged in 2014 After Half-Decade of EPA Rule Uncertainty

Coal ash utilization, which had stalled between 2009 and 2013 as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepared a final federal coal ash rule, increased significantly in 2014.

According to the American Coal Ash Association’s (ACAA’s) most recent “Production and Use Survey,” 62.4 million tons of coal combustion products were beneficially used in 2014—up from 51.4 million tons in 2013 and above the 2008 peak of 60.6 million tons. A total of 129.7 million tons of coal combustion products were produced in 2014—up from 114.7 million tons the prior year.

The group suggested that the half-decade of stalled growth was in large part due to the EPA’s “protracted rulemaking process” that posed the threat of a “hazardous waste” designation for coal ash that is disposed. “Ash producers, specifiers and users restricted coal ash use in light of the regulatory uncertainty and publicity surrounding EPA’s activities. In 2014, EPA began signaling that the ‘hazardous waste’ designation proposal was off the table and in December 2014 finalized coal ash disposal regulations under the non-hazardous section of federal law,” it noted.

Additionally, the recent mass of coal power plant retirements in response to other EPA rules and energy market conditions were partly to blame for a decline in fly ash and bottom ash produced in 2014 compared to 2013, the ACAA said. Fly ash production declined nearly 3 million tons, to 50.4 million tons. Bottom ash production declined nearly 2 million tons to 12.5 million tons.

However, while ash production declined, the production of synthetic gypsum—another “non-ash” coal combustion product—increased substantially. Synthetic gypsum is a byproduct of coal plant flue gas desulfurization units (scrubbers). More plants are installing and operating scrubbers to comply with environmental rules, the group noted. Synthetic gypsum production in 2014 increased 9.7 million tons to 34.1 million tons. “Use of synthetic gypsum increased 4.8 million tons to 16.8 million tons, driven by increased utilization in wallboard manufacturing and agricultural applications in which the gypsum improves soil conditions and prevents harmful runoff of fertilizers,” the ACAA said.

“Although 2014’s results show a significant improvement, it’s important to remember that the United States is still disposing of more than half of the coal combustion products that could be put to good use,” said Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the ACAA. “Additionally, the coal ash beneficial use industry is taking significant strides in developing strategies and technologies for reclaiming coal ash materials that were previously disposed.”

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)