BE2C2 Report — Shipping containers full of coal ash from China, Poland and India have come into the U.S. through the Port of Virginia as foreign companies find a market for the same industrial waste that America’s utilities are struggling to dispose of.
These materials can be had for several dollars a ton in the U.S. if trucked directly from a coal power plant or ash dump to a factory or job site. They’re more expensive to obtain in a useful form after decades underground or underwater. That makes foreign imports economically viable.
These countries and many more have hundreds of coal plants — China has in thousands — many other countries have coal ash available for recycling.
Environment experts stress that this waste, with heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead, must be properly managed to avoid risks to human health. Shipping them overseas can help avoid the necessity to treat them – environmentally a costly affair. Recycling or shipping them can rake in additional revenue.
Coal ash is treasure as well as trash, useful for projects from roads to blocks to concrete to wallboard, etc.
Critics in the state of Virginia want recycling of coal ash mandatory, rather than be a threat for contamination of water sources or create an environmental disaster.
“We have millions of tons of this sitting along our riverbanks,” Travis Blankenship, former government affairs manager for the Virginia League of Conservation Voters told AP, “Why in the world would we be importing it from other states and countries?”
America’s shift away from coal for electricity has reduced the supply of fresh coal ash, forcing industries that depend on it to look farther afield – even overseas.
The Port of Virginia, according to reports, handled just one shipping container of coal ash in 2015, from India. Last year, there were about 22 from China and Poland.
Coal ash includes bottom ash, which settles in boilers; fly ash, a powdery material captured in exhaust stacks; and synthetic gypsum, a byproduct of smokestack “scrubbing.”
The Dominion Virginia Power company is closing 11 ponds containing around 29 million cubic yards of ash at four Virginia power stations to comply with EPA rules. It’s been proceeding largely by treating and releasing the water, consolidating some coal ash ponds and capping the remaining dry material. The company insists its process is safe but costly.
In Pakistan’s vast Thar coal belt located in the southern province of Sindh and in Balochistan’s Hub district, several coal plants are under construction by Engro and the Chinese. At least two (1320MW) coal powered plants are under construction in the suburb of Karachi port city.
“Coal ash will be trucked away by blocks and readymix concrete manufacturers, Shamshuddin Shaikh, CEO of Engro Coal mining and power projects in Thar told BE2C2.
Asked if any synthetically lined holding ponds for coal ash were being built in case there’s a slump in their direct disposal to recycling outfits, Mr. Shaikh said “there’s no need for it…all the ash will be taken away by the block and concrete manufacturers.”
The ash has real value, and technology to reprocess it is already being used worldwide, Mr. Shaikh added.
“We can … take the material that would be an environmental liability and transform it into something that has a beneficial use,” said Jimmy Knowles of The SEFA Group, which partners with utilities in South Carolina and Maryland to recycle both old and new ash, reported AP.
Knowles views are similar to Mr. Shaikh’s of Engro coal and power outfits.
Many states in the U.S. and even Europe now require recycling as ash ponds close or are prohibited. Pakistan and India do have environmental laws but making coal ash recycling mandatory is unclear, an expert said.
Recyclers see long-term savings in avoiding landfill maintenance and monitoring. Concrete-makers, meanwhile, can make their product cheaper and more durable by replacing some cement with fly ash.
We’d like to use fly ash in every yard we produce,” said Eric Misenheimer, at Chandler Concrete Co. , which operates dozens of North Carolina and Virginia plants.
Virginia mandates fly ash as an additive in transportation department projects, but ash production has been declining since around 2008, according to the American Coal Ash Association.
“Obviously, when we have a shortage, we have a hard time filling those obligations. Last year was pretty tough for us,” said Morgan Nelson, of S.B. Cox, another Virginia concrete-maker.
Thirty-one percent of Dominion’s freshly burned ash was recycled last year, Richardson said. On average, U.S. utilities recycled 52 percent in 2015, according to the ACAA.
No one tracks how much ash arrives at ports nationwide, though the ACAA is starting to try.
In Pakistan where almost a dozen coal power plants are under construction with Chinese loans and operational partnership under the $56 billion CPEC program – part of China’s ambitious One Belt One Road initiative, experts expect coal ash could become a useful residue or an environmentally sensitive hazard.
Pakistan, India and China and many other countries fall in the highest air pollution belt.
At least one utility, WE Energies in Wisconsin, recycles 100 percent of its freshly burned waste. Its fly ash was used to build the Milwaukee Art Museum, bottom ash is used for structural fills and road bases, and gypsum is sold as soil additive.
Engro coal and power is said to have adopted a similar strategy.
“We were very good at building landfills and filling them up,” said Bruce Rammey of WEC Energy Group. He became convinced in the 1980s that recycling’s cheaper in the long run.
WE Energies hasn’t completely eliminated its legacy coal ash, however. In 2011, a bluff collapsed near a power plant outside Milwaukee, sending soil, coal ash and other debris into Lake Michigan.
Thar doesn’t have lakes fortunately. In fact Thar has almost no source of surface or ground water. “We have ash yards for temporary storage and emergency. They are lined with impervious clay base to stop ash-laden water or leachate migrate, Mr. Shaikh said.
Environmentalists say unrecycled ash should be contained in synthetically lined landfills and unlined dumps if built must be emptied regularly.
Recycling “wouldn’t solve the coal ash issue (completely)… but it would definitely make a dent in it,” Blankenship said.
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