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Waste Management Sees Coal Ash Disposal Opportunities

Waste ManagementWaste Management is expecting to see a significant growth in its sales if a pending EPA rule requiring coal-fired power plants to dispose of ash byproduct in engineered landfills is passed, according to Bloomberg.

According to David Steiner of Waste Management, the EPA rule will most likely require coal ash pits to be replaced by lined landfills, similar to the landfill requirements for solid waste implemented 30 years ago.

The EPA is deciding whether to regulate coal ash as a special waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, subjecting it to hazardous waste regulations, or as a nonhazardous waste under Subtitle D, which would leave regulatory authority with the states. The agency is expected to issue a final rule by the end of the year.

The rule is intended to address coal ash pits that have leaked and contaminated water supplies, such as the spill earlier this year at Duke Energy in North Carolina. As a result of that spill, Duke Energy is now the subject of a criminal investigation by a federal grand jury.

According to Steiner, the move into handling coal ash is an expansion opportunity for the company. Approximately 140 million tons of coal waste are generated by electric utilities each year, which is more than the 100 million tons of garbage currently handled by Waste Management.

According to Steiner, the company is already beginning to get a considerable amount of coal ash from utilities.

However, disposal is not the only option for coal ash.

In February, the EPA released its evaluation of the two largest beneficial uses of encapsulated coal ash: use in concrete as a substitute for Portland cement, and the use of flue gas desulfurization gypsum as a substitute for mined gypsum in wallboard.

In July, Michigan approved a bill to allow coal ash to be reused for some beneficial purposes such as road construction and as a fertilizer supplement.

While Steiner expects some utilities will choose to continue taking care of their own waste, he says winning just a small portion of the market could result in 10 million tons of additional sales volume a year for the company.

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2 thoughts on “Waste Management Sees Coal Ash Disposal Opportunities

  1. The time has come to tax coal ash so coal burners are incentivized to harness technology to eliminate coal ash entirely. Let’s say a tax of $10 per ton of coal ash is levied on every coal-fired plant in the US. With 140,000,000 tons of coal ash per year being produced, about 90,000,000 million tons is being buried and stored for later disposal (fill), while the rest (about 45,000,000 tons) is being used in concrete and other products.

    Do the math. That 90 million tons/year generates 900 million dollars of tax that can be used to clean up the mess that’s being made by current coal ash disposal methods. Coal fired plants can use plasma-arc vitrification systems – the same being used on the newest US Aircraft carriers – to vitrify the ash so it is reduced by 95% or more into an inert glass. And if technology to gasify the coal ash is adopted, it may be possible to recover some of the wasted energy for steam, which in turn generates electricity. That process could negate the “Coal Ash Tax” because it could provide electricity to consumers, keep our environment clean, and generate revenue for the coal-fired plants – – all at a much lower cost than hauling and storing the ash as being done now.

    Here’s the plan. All coal ash produced by US coal-burning energy plants will be taxed at a rate of $10 per ton. At the rate of 140,000,000 tons per year generated in the US, the coal ash tax potentially generates $1.4 billion per year that would be held in an environment cleanup trust fund, controlled by publicly elected representatives living in communities near coal ash disposal sites, much like your mayors and sheriffs – – make it local and not from some fantasy land in DC. And to spice up the motivation, when coal ash disposal sites are located within a flood plain or near a waterway, the coal tax would be doubled to a rate of $20 per ton.

    Qualified waiver incentives to escape the coal ash tax are simple. First, the coal ash tax is waived on ash that is recycled for building materials, which currently averages 40% at typical US coal-fired plants. Of the 140,000,000 tons currently produced each year in the US, about 56,000,000 tons are reused in building materials. That brings the Coal Ash Tax Trust Fund (let’s call it the CATT Fund) down to an annual potential of $840,000,000 for the coal ash that’s being disposed in landfills. But if a landfill or holding area (e.g., pond) is on a flood plain or within 500 yards of a waterway, an additional tax of $10 per ton is levied on ash disposed in those sites. For round numbers, let’s assume the CATT Fund will collect $1 billion in taxes annually for the mix of disposal sites being used today.

    At a $1 billion in new taxes, one would think energy companies will be motivated to eliminate coal ash altogether. Their second option is to apply a technology that was developed, tested and is being implemented by the US Department of Defense. A very-high-temperature process known as plasma-arc waste destruction is currently being installed on the next-generation of US Navy aircraft carriers. These plasma-arc systems can be optimized for a variety of waste streams. For coal ash, a plasma-arc system can be packaged to vitrify and gasify about 98% of the coal ash currently being buried in landfills. That’s roughly 82,000,000 tons of coal ash that can be kept out of your waterways and nearby landfills using a very affordable alternative to landfills.

    So what do you do with the remaining 2,000,000 tons that’s left each year from plasma-arc vitrification? This glassy-like residual material is an inert binder of minerals that traps traces of formerly toxic residuals, which can also be used for building materials beyond the current concrete and gypsum use. But there are dozens of other potential and high-value uses, particularly if you are a ceramics engineer who can add certain ingredients to the molten glass as it pours out of the plasma-arc vitrification system. How about amorphous photovoltaic cells? It’s possible to produce an 18% efficient photovoltaic cell from vitrified coal ash (as long as Solyndra isn’t working on it).

    The third motivator for energy companies using coal-fired plants is to set aside a research and development fund derived from a 10% portion of the CATT Fund. Qualified companies would be able to propose R&D projects and receive matching funds to achieve greater efficiencies in coal ash elimination or improve processes, such as using a plasma-arc vitrification system to generate synthetic gas that can drive a turbine generator. If a company’s coal ash elimination R&D project is successfully demonstrated and implemented, the company would be reimbursed from the CATT Fund’s R&D portion.

    In summary, neither energy companies nor their electricity customers would have to pay a cent of coal ash tax if all of the coal ash is reused for building materials, eliminated with technology such as a plasma-arc system or converted to energy by yet-discovered processes via CATT Fund.

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