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North Dakota lignite industry pleased EPA labeled coal ash non-hazardous waste

BISMARCK - As environmentalists decried the decision, North Dakota's lignite coal industry welcomed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision Friday to classify coal ash as non-hazardous waste.

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The Great River Energy Coal Creek Station coal plant near the Falkirk mine outside of Underwood, N.D., pictured in this file photo, is the largest power plant in North Dakota. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

BISMARCK – As environmentalists decried the decision, North Dakota’s lignite coal industry welcomed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision Friday to classify coal ash as non-hazardous waste.

A hazardous waste designation would have cost each of the state’s eight coal-fired power plants millions of dollars in operational changes and could have been the “final nail in the coffin” for some facilities, said Jason Bohrer, president of the Bismarck-based Lignite Energy Council.

“It looks like we’ll be able to get by with minimal changes,” he said.

The EPA began assessing the health risks and storage of coal ash after a dam failed at a Tennessee plant in December 2008, spilling 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash that flooded more than 300 acres, polluted rivers, destroyed homes and forced the evacuation of a nearby neighborhood.

On Friday, the agency classified coal ash in the same category as garbage and sludge from wastewater treatment plants, while also requiring regular safety inspections for coal ash impoundments and landfills and monitoring of nearby groundwater for signs of toxic elements such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic.


“We feel that’s still very protective of the environment,” said Scott Radig, waste management director for the North Dakota Department of Health, which regulates coal ash as a special waste, the same way it treats oilfield waste.

In order to maintain its role as the primary regulator of North Dakota’s coal ash, the health department plans to submit a solid waste plan to the EPA, which will have six months to decide whether the plan is adequate, Radig said.

“There may be some tweaking or minor adjustments we need to make to get to where they match, but overall I think our rules are very close or in some cases more stringent than the federal rules,” he said.

North Dakota’s coal plants generated about 3 million tons of coal combustion waste in 2013, including 2.3 million tons of coal ash, also known as fly ash, Radig said. Nationwide, 470 coal-fired electric utilities generated about 110 million tons of coal ash in 2012, the EPA reported.

About 40 percent of the coal ash from North Dakota’s power plants is sold rather than landfilled, with much of it used as an ingredient in concrete for bridges, buildings and other projects, according to the lignite council. Over the past 20 years, nearly 50,000 tons of fly ash also has been used to help stabilize the state’s abandoned underground lignite mines to prevent sinkholes.

“To have this material as a hazardous waste when we are a leader in North Dakota in using this for beneficial uses … it would have been a real serious setback,” Bohrer said.

North Dakota has 15 active disposal units for coal combustion waste, six of which use a slurry system that allows ash or slag to settle out from the water in an impoundment, Radig said.

“These are regulated and constructed essentially at the same standards as a water dam,” he said. “They have a robust design, construction and inspection program.”


U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who brought EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to North Dakota coal country last February, said she pushed for the non-hazardous label, reasonable monitoring and disposal requirements and allowing states to determine how to recycle coal ash, and was “glad to see that her agency took our state’s needs to heart.”

Bohrer wasn’t entirely pleased with the EPA rule, saying it leaves the door open for coal plants to be sued for their disposal practices. U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., also raised concern that the EPA could still someday label coal ash as a hazardous waste. U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., called the non-hazardous label a step in the right direction but stressed that coal ash is better regulated by individual states.

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