An industry-funded report released late Wednesday suggests that federal regulation of coal combustion residuals, or coal ash, currently being considered by the Environmental Protection Agency would result in as many as 316,000 lost jobs and as much as $110 billion in lost economic activity over a 20-year period.
But environmental groups were quick to label the report as a cynical and misleading ploy timed to coincide with markup of legislation aimed at blocking the EPA from regulating coal ash -- which contains a variety of chemicals like arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury -- as hazardous waste.
Coal ash disposal is currently unregulated at the federal level, but the EPA is weighing two options for bringing the post-combustion leftovers from power plants under the purview of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Under the first option, coal ash -- which can include a wide range of waste materials like fly ash, bottom ash and others -- would be treated as a "special waste" under Subtitle C of that legislation, which governs hazardous wastes. A second option would deal with the material under Subtitle D of the statute, which governs non-hazardous wastes. This option would simply set national guidelines, but leave it to states and the industry to implement them. The coal ash industry opposes both of these regulatory designations.
The United States produces more than 130 million tons of coal ash annually, according to the American Coal Ash Association, an industry group. Roughly 43 percent of that is used as an additive in concrete products, bricks, shingles and other materials. The rest is disposed of in loosely regulated holding ponds and landfills.
The new report landed, not coincidentally, the day before a Congressional subcommittee was scheduled to begin marking up of a bill aimed at preventing the EPA from regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste at all. That markup session has now been delayed until next week.
The analysis, which was compiled by Veritas Economic Consulting on behalf of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) , paints a bleak scenario of employment and financial losses in either of the two EPA regulatory cases.
The heaviest toll would be taken, according to the analysis, under Subtitle C, the hazardous waste section. Under this scenario, between 183,900 and 316,000 jobs would be lost, costing the industry between $79 billion and $110 billion over 20 years.
Under Subtitle D -- which industry groups preemptively lobbied for after the 2008 collapse of a dike at an 84-acre coal-ash holding pond in Kingston, Tenn. -- job losses would range from 39,000 to 65,000, according to the analysis, with costs to the industry ranging from $23 billion to $35 billion.
But since the Kingston disaster, the industry has shifted its support toward something called "Subtitle D Prime," said James Roewer, the executive director of USWAG. This looser regulatory plan would, among other things, not require existing surface coal ash impoundments to be retrofitted with liners.
"The type of non-hazardous waste regulatory program that we support would not result in job loses as extensive as those projected in the Veritas report," Roewer said. "Most importantly, such regulation would protect human health and the environment and would not result in the economic disruption as would EPA's proposed D regulations."
The report suggests some dire circumstances, including a flood of coal waste suddenly being shipped to commercial hazardous waste landfills instead of being recycled into construction materials. Landfill facilities that would be quickly overwhelmed by the volume. And given that coal provides nearly half the nation's electricity, and that coal ash is used as an input by so many other industries, the job losses would be felt across the economy with a few limited job gains in some sectors that handle waste, the report said.
"The regulation of coal combustion residuals (CCRs) as proposed by EPA would impact the economics of coal power plants, industries that recycle CCRs into products, electricity customers, and consumers that use products made from CCRs," Veritas wrote. "Compliance with CCR regulation would present new costs and impact the financial viability of some coal-based generating units. Premature generating unit retirements and increased electricity prices would lead to regional employment impacts. The proposed CCR regulation would restrict the use of CCRs in some applications, which would cause economic impacts to beneficial use industries. Stigma and liability concerns associated with Subtitle C regulation may further impede recycling efforts, causing additional job losses in industries that use CCRs. In other sectors such as waste management and process equipment manufacturing, increased revenues would result in job additions."
But critics of the analysis were quick to suggest that some of these assertions and projections were overstated.
"A quick look shows incredible exaggeration of the impacts," said Scott Slesinger, legislative director with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The idea that tons of this stuff would be shipped to commercial landfills, filling up the nation's hazardous waste landfills and inflating cost is complete fiction."
The NRDC director said that the proposed EPA regulations would provide for the waste to continue to be handled on site, with retrofitted impoundments that use liners and monitors to make sure the toxics in coal ash don't leach into ground- or surface-water.
Slesinger also took issue with the "stigma" argument, which holds that businesses that currently purchase coal ash for use as an additive in the secondary market would no longer do so if it was regulated as a hazardous material by the EPA.
"The assumption of lost jobs because of the stigma attached to the recycling of fly ash is completely bogus," he said. "EPA, since 1980 has listed many waste streams as hazardous. In every one, industries cried that recycling would end because of the stigma. And in every case since 1980 the opposite is happened. Why? The market does work."
Slesinger pointed to the steel industry, which used to dispose of the waste captured in its air pollution equipment in landfills. "When it became regulated and the waste had to go to a proper landfill, the cost went up and companies started to recycle the zinc from the waste," he said. "Industry cannot point to one stigma that caused recycling to go down."
Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, also pointed to the calculated landing of the analysis.
"The release of this report is well-timed. Lots of stuff happening," she said. The markup of what Evens called the "the unprecedentedly horrible new coal ash bill in subcommittee" was originally scheduled for Thursday.
McKinley has argued that the scientific evidence of coal ash's toxicity is dubious.
"Let me be clear: if there is a scientific consensus that fly ash is a hazardous material, then we should regulate it as such," McKinley wrote in the Daily Caller back in April. "The truth is, however, that there isn't a scientific consensus that fly ash is a hazardous material; in fact, there appears to be a consensus that it is non-hazardous. Before it’s too late, the EPA should abide by the scientific findings of their previous studies and not abuse their regulatory authority by introducing more uncertainty into the marketplace for coal."
An August, 2010 report co-published by Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, however, found groundwater or surface water contaminated with toxic metals and other pollutants at at least 137 coal ash disposal sites in 34 states.
The latest EPA survey of industry suggests that there are as many as 676 such disposal sites at 240 facilities around the United States.
Jim Roewer of the solid waste industry group said his organization was not opposed to cleaning itself up. It just wants to do it on its own terms, not the EPA's.
"We continue to support the regulation of CCRs as non-hazardous waste, implemented by the states," he said in an email. "Such regulation should include groundwater monitoring, groundwater protection standards, corrective action and closure/post-closure care requirements."