Wisconsin Could Become Coal Ash Model

(Milwaukee Buzz 11-22-2010) Research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison could influence federal policy on how to handle coal ash – the byproduct of burning coal, typically to generate electricity. Although some environmental advocates consider it hazardous waste, it’s long been used in the state as aggregate material for road and construction projects. Wisconsin’s rules on recycling of fly ash, enforced by its Department of Natural Resources, could become a national model for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA is considering whether to classify fly ash as “hazardous waste,” which would require the electric utilities that generate it, including those in Wisconsin, to store the ash in landfills instead of selling it, as reported in NewsBuzz. The EPA could also classify the ash as hazardous but create an exception for beneficial uses.
That’s a route, however, that Craig Benson, an engineering professor a UW-Madison and co-director of the national Recycled Material Resource Center, warns against. This summer, he argued in a Congressional hearing against classifying the waste as hazardous.
“The designation of these materials as a hazardous waste, even with an exemption for beneficial use, will have a very significant impact on that perceived risk,” he said, “and will result in a significant reduction in the use of these materials in construction.”
Benson argues that the materials have been proven safe. “We have been looking at this issue for nearly two decades,” he says. “There’s really not a scientific reason to designate these as hazardous.”
The U.S. produced 47 million tons of fly ash in 2007, according to a UW-Madison news release, and about 47 percent was recycled. The rest wound up in landfills.
A joint study paid for by the Recycled Materials Resource Center (which receives federal funds) and the Electric Power Research Institute (which is funded by electric companies) found that recycling the ash saves enough energy every year to power 1.7 million households, and it reduces greenhouse gases equivalent to taking 2 million cars off the road for a year.
Benson tells NewsBuzz that although EPRI and the federal government provided funding for the study, “Neither influenced (nor) tried to influence the outcome of our research.  We did our work unfettered by outside influences and believe we have portrayed the findings in the most realistic perspective available.”
Wisconsin’s rules are seen as a leading national model, the news release says, and could be used as a starting point for new national regulations. The EPA is also considering leaving fly ash regulations up to states, the option preferred by most electric utilities, including Milwaukee-based We Energies.
Environmental groups contend that stricter regulations are needed because coal ash contains dangerous heavy metals that can leech into the ground. Benson argues, however, that not enough of the metals leach into the ground to be dangerous. The issue rose in prominence in 2008 after a coal slurry pond (containing coal ash) broke in Tennessee, unleashing a mudslide.
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