In a white paper published in January 2020, A Comprehensive Survey of Coal Ash Law and Commercialization: Its Environmental Risks, Disposal Regulation, and Beneficial Use Markets commissioned by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners under a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, found that regulation to comply with Federal and State EPA requirements by utilities [coal fired power stations] or CFPS will be costly.
The recovery of imposed compliance costs will usually fall within the purview of state public utility commissions (State Owned and Operated faciliaties) and ultimately will likely be passed onto power customers. Compliance cost estimates for remediation of ash ponds range from the millions for individual coal ash ponds to billions for some utilities, and up to possibly hundreds of billions of dollars across the country, but true cost projections will be dependent on the closure and clean-up methods that are approved by state legislatures and/or environmental regulators.
Along with explaining coal ash, its components, and its environmental and health risks, it explores the legacy of coal ash, reviews coal ash management and challenges for regulators and stakeholders and provides an overview of events leading to the regulatory drive to address the environmental risks of coal ash. The survey includes a detailed summary of recent developments in several states, including North Carolina and Georgia, and also discusses beneficial use markets for coal ash.
The white paper concludes by suggesting that the regulation of coal ash has become a public policy priority. Disposal is not the only alternative solution. Beneficial use markets for coal ash have been developing over the same time duration as coal ash has been accumulating. In 2017, 64 percent of coal ash produced was used in a beneficial end use, and more would have been used except for the lack of quality coal ash availability. Private markets are investing in means and methodologies to improve the production of coal ash during the coal combustion process at coal burning plants. Concerned with a potential decline in the supply of coal ash byproducts as a result of the decline in coal-based electricity generation and closure of CCR units, private and public investment is also supporting research in extracting marketable byproducts from legacy coal ash. While this research continues and while new applications for coal ash become commercially deployable, there is a need for long-term storage of coal ash inventory as opposed to disposal facilities.
The paper recommends regulatory policy may need re-examination to find regulatory pathways that incentivize the conservation of coal ash as a commercial resource consistent with RCRA’s conservation objectives [similar to Circular Economy Objectives]. Meanwhile, it appears certain that the next phase of litigation is commencing, as utilities attempt to recover cleanup and compliance costs from ratepayers [power customers], especially as environmentalists engage on groundwater quality issues. How these costs will be recovered will have significant impacts on the electricity customers served by public utilities.