On Kingston Anniversary, Time to Refocus on Recycling

December 22 marks the fifth anniversary of the coal ash spill at the Kingston power plant in Tennessee. Cleanup from the incident is substantially complete, but the regulatory uncertainty and negative publicity the spill caused continue to depress efforts to recycle coal ash rather than throw it away.

In today’s Knoxville News-Sentinel, American Coal Ash Association Executive Director Thomas Adams called for refocusing on recycling. You can view the article on the KnoxNews website here – or view a reprint below:


Five Years after Kingston Spill: It’s Time to Refocus on Recycling Coal Ash

 By Thomas H. Adams

Executive Director, American Coal Ash Association

Five years ago, the coal ash recycling world changed in an instant when an aging disposal pond failed in Tennessee, spilling ash into the nearby river. While much has been written about the ensuing billion-dollar clean-up and need for improved coal ash disposal regulations, another environmental tragedy related to the event has gone woefully under-reported.

Uncertainty over the future regulatory status of coal ash combined with unrelenting exaggeration about the “toxicity” of the material has combined to halt the growth of one of America’s greatest recycling success stories. The clean-up at Kingston is now complete, but damage continues nationwide we dispose of millions of tons of ash that could otherwise be beneficially used in products like concrete and wallboard.

Five years later, it’s time to put Kingston behind us and refocus on using coal ash in ways that safely keep it out of landfills and impoundments.

Coal remains the largest fuel source for generating electricity in America and produces large volumes of coal ash — the generic term for several solid materials left over from the combustion process. About 110 million tons of ash were produced in 2012.

There are many good reasons to view coal ash as a resource, rather than a waste. Recycling it conserves natural resources and saves energy. In many cases, products made with coal ash perform better than products made without it. For instance, coal ash makes concrete stronger and more durable – saving $5 billion per year on road and bridge construction. It also reduces the need to manufacture cement, resulting in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – about 11 million tons in 2012 alone.

These benefits have been hindered by a post-Kingston environment of regulatory uncertainty and a steady stream of misleading publicity regarding the safety of coal ash. This unfortunate combination is actually causing more ash to be disposed. If the past four years had simply remained equal with 2008’s utilization, we would have seen 25.9 million tons less coal ash deposited in landfills and impoundments.

The decline in recycling volumes stands in stark contrast to the previous decade’s trend. In 2000, when the recycling volume was 32.1 million tons, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its Final Regulatory Determination that regulation of ash as a “hazardous waste” was not warranted. Over the next eight years, EPA also began actively promoting the beneficial use of coal ash and the recycling volume soared to 60.6 million tons. Recycling stalled after 2008 as EPA reopened its coal ash regulatory agenda following the Kingston failure.

Recycling is also harmed by anti-coal environmental activists who consistently refer to coal ash as “highly toxic” with no regard for how those unsupported descriptions damage the environmentally beneficial recycling of the material. A 2012 ACAA report analyzing the most up-to-date U.S. Government information available about the constituents of coal ash concludes that concentrations of metals in the material, with few exceptions, are below environmental screening levels for residential soils and are similar in concentration to common dirt. The levels of metals present in coal ash are similar to the levels of metals in materials coal ash replaces when used in construction materials.

There is some reason to hope that this issue may finally get settled next year. In response to a lawsuit by ash recyclers and environmental groups, EPA is expected to say soon when it plans to conclude its coal ash disposal rulemaking. Efforts to resolve the issue in Congress have also reached an advanced stage with strong bipartisan support for a program that would establish coal ash disposal regulations enforced by state departments of environmental protection.

Coal ash recyclers are encouraged that the final shape of the regulations will likely avoid an unwarranted and damaging “hazardous waste” designation. EPA has signaled in a related rulemaking that non-hazardous regulations are appropriate and the legislation before Congress would carry the same label. At this point, it’s just important to get one of the efforts to the finish line so that we can decisively remove the regulatory uncertainty and get back to the work of growing recycling.

The environment will benefit when people agree that the best solution to coal ash disposal problems is to quit throwing coal ash away.


Thomas H. Adams is Executive Director of the American Coal Ash Association – an organization formed in 1968 to advance the management and use of coal combustion products in ways that are: environmentally responsible; technically sound; commercially competitive; and supportive of a sustainable global community.

 Citizens for Recycling First is not sponsored by or associated with the American Coal Ash Association.

Posted by: on: Dec 22, 2013 @ 01:38