Pain in the Ash

Pain in the Ash

UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Dai Hall, home to a specialized information technology institute, used fly-ash concrete as part of its sustainablity appeal.
Courtesy UC/CITRIS

Over the past two decades, fly ash has become a staple of the sustainable building materials movement, but that could change if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) goes ahead with rules proposed last fall that would designate fly ash and other coal combustion byproducts as hazardous waste.

Construction industry groups and environmental watchdogs fear the change could jeopardize any industry that uses materials with recycled fly ash—namely wallboard, bricks, and concrete, in which fly ash can replace up to 25 percent of cement content in some bridge and foundation applications, in turn cutting millions of tons of carbon emissions created during cement’s production.

The proposal was sparked by a 2008 accident at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston, Tennessee, coal plant that spilled non-concrete grade fly ash sludge over 300 acres of land, and put pressure on federal officials to add new regulations about handling waste from coal-fired power plants. In response, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has been deliberating over the changes since EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson submitted them last September.

Laying the foundations for Sutardja Dai Hall, designed by SmithGroup.

Currently, 43 percent, or about 430 million tons, of fly ash is recycled each year, a number that is expected to grow unless the EPA’s changes hamper the material’s use. And that prospect has caused strife within the Obama administration, which has made sustainability a top priority.

"We believe that the Obama administration and Lisa Jackson’s office are committed to seeing the growth of recycling of fly ash," said Luke Pustejovsky, vice president of business development and product marketing for CalStar Products. The Newark, California-based fly-ash brick startup that has been among the firms invited to numerous meetings that the White House and the EPA have held on the subject. "They have even asked us what they can do to make it clear to architects, engineers, building contractors, and building owners that this is an absolutely safe product," Pustejovsky added. "At the same time, they are in a difficult position because they have to balance several interests."

The crux of the matter, according to Andy O’Hare, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Portland Cement Association, is that the nation’s patchwork of solid waste disposal laws has hamstrung the EPA. "Solid waste disposal is largely the purview of states," he said. "The only way for the EPA to have any sort of federal oversight is to classify something as hazardous waste. Therein lies the rub."

The main entrance to Sutardja Dai Hall, which opened last year.
Courtesy UC/CITRIS

Though the spirit of the law may be to prevent more toxic spills, stakeholders worry that the letter of the law could turn fly ash into a material with the same reputation as asbestos or lead paint, leading corporations and other potential clients to shun it. "Corporate counsel tends to be very risk-averse," O’Hare said. "There are some corporate counsel that will certainly recommend staying away." The change could also affect the LEED rating system for fly ash and force states to rewrite some building codes.

Circumstances would be much different if the EPA works with states to implement recommended programs for coal byproduct storage and disposal. Under that model, new regulations could be a catalyst for expanding solid waste recycling rather than hindering it.

One potential model is in Wisconsin, where CalStar’s manufacturing plant is based and where the cost of fly ash disposal is high, encouraging plants to recycle as much waste as possible. "They look closely at ash preservation in their electricity generation," Pustejovsky said. "There is a way to do it that doesn’t sacrifice the quality of the ash, so that it can then be used by cement makers and brick makers. They’ve looked at it as an environmental mandate."