The Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant is currently garnering most of the attention from the agency’s critics, but it is far from the only problematic EPA regulation in the works. Another proposal that also deserves strong opposition is the agency’s attempt to label coal combustion byproducts (CCBs) as hazardous waste. Doing so is not only environmentally unnecessary but downright counterproductive, and would raise energy costs and kill jobs to boot.
Like several other Obama administration regulations, this extreme proposal goes well beyond anything contemplated under Bush or under Clinton. In fact, it was the Clinton administration EPA that concluded in 2000 that CCBs, chiefly the fly ash from burning coal to produce electricity, should be categorized as non-hazardous and handled in a manner not unlike municipal solid waste. The Obama administration has offered no convincing evidence that this determination was wrong and that CCBs pose a public health threat. Nonetheless, it is moving forward with the hazardous proposal.
A hazardous designation would not only raise CCB handling and disposal costs, but would put an end to their beneficial uses. Large volumes of fly ash are added to concrete, both stretching the supply of this ubiquitous construction material as well as improving its quality. Another kind of CCBs can be used in wallboard, taking the place of mined gypsum. Fully 44 percent of the 136 million tons of CCBs produced annually are put to good use, and the percentage has been growing. No actual problems have emerged with the use of recycled CCBs in these materials.
However, if EPA slaps the hazardous label — and attached stigma — on CCBs, such uses would very likely come to an end due to liability concerns — imagine the field day tort lawyers would have over supposedly toxic sidewalks and poisonous walls.
Thus, a hazardous designation would almost certainly preclude any productive uses of CCBs. As a consequence, more virgin concrete would have to be made, and more gypsum mined. All the attendant energy and other resource inputs as well as emissions associated with these processes would increase — a clear negative for the environment.
From the coal-fired utility standpoint, a hazardous listing would transform CCBs from a valuable byproduct to a costly liability. Many new disposal sites would have to be created and maintained. Half the nation’s electricity is generated from coal, thus the higher electricity generation costs would impact tens of millions of homeowners and businesses. Some coal-fired power plants would have to shut down completely – indeed, a hazardous designation for CCBs fits in perfectly with the Obama administration’s larger anti-coal agenda.
Employment would face a painful double whammy from a hazardous designation. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that 2,000 of its member manufacturing companies may be involved in using CCBs in the products they make. For the rest, the resultant higher energy costs would further hamper competitiveness and growth. Either way, the rule would reduce manufacturing jobs.
Back in 2000, the EPA wisely concluded that it did “not wish to place any unnecessary barriers on the beneficial uses of these wastes, because they conserve natural resources, reduce disposal costs, and reduce the total amount of waste destined for disposal.” Too bad this kind of common sense has all but disappeared at the Obama EPA.