In a news conference hosted today by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), presenters argued that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has overstated the economic benefits of recycling coal ash by more than 20 times and exaggerated the potential stigma on recycled fly ash that could result from tougher coal ash regulations. At the same time, the EPA is vastly underemphasizing the costs to human and environmental health of not regulating the substance, presenters said.

Presenters on the conference call, which was timed to coincide with the two-year anniversary of the coal ash spill at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant, made the case that errors and distortions in the EPA’s cost-benefit analysis have led to an impasse in moving forward with regulation of coal ash.

Frank Ackerman, senior economist at Tuft University’s Stockholm Environmental Institute, discussed his reconstruction of the EPA’s cost-benefit analysis. The EPA’s analysis, he said, was deeply flawed. Ackerman’s reevaluation begins by saying, “The Regulatory Impact Analysis prepared for the USEPA’s proposed regulation of coal combustion residues (CCR RIA) estimates that recycling ash and flue gas desulfurizatation  (FGD) byproduct results in annual lifecycle benefits of almost $23 billion. Closer analysis based on data from the USEPA, the US Geological Survey, and the Department of Energy suggests a more realistic estimate of $1.15 billion.”

The EPA’s mistakes, Ackerman said, ranged from miscopying of numbers between columns to flawed assumptions. For example, the claimed benefits of recycling:

  •  “overstate emissions from cement kilns, and double count reductions that EPA has already claimed will occur under Clean Air Act rules adopted in August of 2010;
  • mistakenly apply a formula designed to measure fine particle health costs to the reduction of much larger particles from gypsum manufacturers;
  • assume unrealistic savings from reducing energy consumption at cement kilns and gypsum plants that contradict data available from the USEPA and other federal agencies.”

Ackerman’s economic analysis was submitted to the EPA during the public comment period. When asked why the EPA would have made so many errors in its economic analysis, he replied that it may have been the result of too few non-specialists being given too much to do.

The EPA is considering categorizing coal ash from power plants under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) as either a Subtitle C hazardous waste or a Subtitle D nonhazardous waste. The former designation would result in more stringent requirements for handling the substance, whereas the latter would more or less reinforce the status quo. The EPA has not expressed a preference for one or the other designation, though industry groups have pressured the EPA to label coal ash nonhazardous.

“The deep flaws in the EPA cost-benefit analysis appear to have escaped scrutiny at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which required EPA to include a weaker coal-ash proposal favored by utilities and some coal ash recyclers,” the EIP said in a statement. “Common sense and past experience indicate that stricter standards for disposal will work to increase, rather than decrease, recycling. But either way, EPA ought not to be intimidated into adopting weak rules based on grossly inflated values for coal ash recycling.”

Abigail Dillen, staff attorney for Earthjustice, argued that the inflated recycling benefit numbers and flawed assumptions about the effects of tougher regulation were distracting attention from the original reason for considering regulation of coal ash: the protection of human health and the environment. Dillen pointed out that though the EPA was required to do a cost-benefit analysis, it does not need to make a decision based upon that analysis.

EIP Director Eric Schaeffer noted that the group was not against recycling fly ash into materials such as wallboard but was concerned that the EPA had “so loudly exaggerated the benefits of recycling” and overblown the potential chilling effect on that recylcing should coal ash be labeled a hazardous waste that the benefits of regulation were being drowned out.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for effective enforcement of environmental laws.

The EPA had not posted a response to today’s press conference as of this issue’s close time.

Sources: Environmental Integrity Project, POWERnews, POWER