U.S. road builders are warning a proposed rule change by the Environmental Protection Agency could produce much higher costs for concrete, shut down some planned projects and disrupt tens of thousands of railcar loads a year. What has them alarmed is that the EPA could designate coal ash and related residue from power plants as hazardous materials to gain control of how utilities store the products and the contaminants they can release.
But because coal combustion products have long been considered safe for a range of uses, from construction site fill material to concrete and even hot-mix asphalt, industry groups say the EPA proposal could curb demand sharply for the cheap waste materials.
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association said just one of those products, a powdery “fly ash” collected by power plant emission scrubbers, has become such an important part of highway and airport construction that an EPA hazmat label on the material could push up annual road, bridge and runway costs by $5.2 billion.
That’s because fly ash can partly replace Portland cement in concrete, at varying levels depending on state rules and weather conditions but at much lower cost. The trade group estimates 77 percent of concrete in U.S. transportation projects contains some fly ash.
Although the EPA could exempt commercial use of coal wastes from a hazmat designation, road builders say the rule still could stifle that business and remove fly ash from some construction programs altogether.
And because road building is overwhelmingly paid for by federal and states taxes, they say Congress and the Obama administration had better pay close attention.
“Without the availability of fly ash, American taxpayers would ultimately bear the burden, either paying more for the same level of transportation improve¬ments, or dealing with the consequences of a scaled-back improvement program,” said Alison Premo Black, senior economist for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and author of a study on fly ash use and costs.
She said designating fly ash as a hazardous material could raise the nation’s infrastructure costs by some $105 billion over the next 20 years.
John P. Ward, who chairs the government relations committee for the American Coal Ash Association, said that also could affect a lot of freight shipments.
In 2007, the last year the coal industry counted shipments by transportation mode, coal ash generated 7.7 million tons hauled long distance by trains and 21.8 million hauled regionally by trucks.
That works out to more than 85,000 railcar loads that year, and more than 870,000 truck hauls.
A powerful silica that promoters say makes concrete stronger, fly ash generates 10 million to 12 million tons annually for commercial use. Bottom ash, a heavier material similar to fine gravel, is used for road base and some lightweight concrete.
This challenge to a widely used material comes as transportation planners have been trying to stretch infrastructure dollars. “Fly ash is a key component of high-performance concrete,” ARTBA said, and if builders used more of it “there would be significant savings, because those roads would last longer and would not have to be repaved or reconstructed until later in their life cycle.”
Another coal waste material is synthetic gypsum. “Forty percent of the wallboard in the United States is manufactured using synthetic gypsum,” Ward said.
Industry officials say the EPA proposal would not simply alter which materials are used in the supply chain and where they are sourced.
Because coal wastes are cheaper than regular cement or gypsum or even the crushed rock they replace, a hazmat designation could push costs for many planned road projects out of reach where road budgets are already stressed.
That would eliminate many shipments outright, industry interests say. It also would raise the cost of coal-powered electricity by stripping a revenue source and forcing utilities to bury or impound more combustion waste. And by requiring more production of Portland cement and other products for construction, it would add more carbon to the environment.
This all started with a huge containment failure. When a coal waste storage dam collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston, Tenn., plant in December 2008, the resulting sludge spill inundated some area homes. The EPA also found it released a mix of toxic chemicals and launched a study of industry risks.
Although the EPA says contaminants from coal burn residuals include arsenic, mercury, lead and chromium, those coal wastes until now were outside its regulation. In a proposed rule this summer, the agency found widespread gaps in state regulation of impounds and landfills that concentrate the waste. Earlier EPA reviews have found no threat from “beneficial uses” such as construction materials. But industry sees the lines blurring.
A pending House bill would install a new regulatory structure without disturbing construction use. Shippers, carriers and builders hope Washington finds a solution soon.