The use of recycled coal ash in concrete can cut down on more emissions-intensive Portland cement. Credit: Max / Creative Commons

Concrete makers in Virginia say Dominion Energy doesn’t need to worry about running out of customers for its 30 million tons of waste coal ash.

They want more of what Dominion needs to get rid of.

The Richmond energy giant released a report last month on disposal options for the waste product, which now sits in unlined ponds outside four Virginia power plants.

Among its conclusions: The market for recycled coal ash in concrete and other construction projects is nearing a glut.

“The supply of ash is likely to exceed demand starting in 2019,” Dominion said in the report, which was ordered last year by the Virginia General Assembly.

But concrete industry officials don’t see that trend materializing. Virginia manufacturers import waste ash from other states, and they say they’d be better served by ash from within the state.

“One-hundred percent of the ash used in Virginia is imported from other states,” said Jimmy Knowles, a vice president with SEFA Group in South Carolina. “Ash hasn’t been there (in sufficient quantities) for a while and has been decreasing in supply, especially specification-grade ash.”

Eric Misenheimer, technical services manager for Chandler Concrete, which operates plants in Virginia, doesn’t anticipate demand for waste ash dropping off under any circumstances short of a major recession.

“Everybody’s hauling ash into Virginia even though (Virginia’s) got it in their backyard,” Misenheimer said.

“We think there is going to be a great demand for it. We already see it now,” said Nathan  Benforado, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center litigating coal ash issues in Virginia.

Dominion’s 800-plus-page report notes that heavy metals at Dominion’s four main disposal sites were detected at monitoring wells above standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It assessed three options for controlling the health and environmental risks at each of the four coal ash pond sites. They included recycling, hauling to a landfill, or leaving the ash in place and taking steps to protect groundwater.

The latter option was projected to be the least-cost option, and the solution Dominion has indicated it prefers. The report has drawn criticism from lawmakers, environmentalists and the recycling industry.

“I don’t know where [report author] AECOM got their data or what they’re using for assumptions,” Misenheimer said.

AECOM and Dominion Energy did not respond to interview requests.

Four disposal stations in the report are: Bremo, just north of Richmond; Chesapeake, a few miles east of the Chesapeake Bay; Chesterfield, just south of Norfolk; and Possum Point, located just off the Potomac River in the Virginia suburbs south of Washington, D.C.

The projected costs varied depending on the size of the facility and its proximity to rail and highway networks. The projected costs for recycling, which would require the company to process much of the material before selling to recyclers, reached as high as $4.25 billion.

“You can make the economics (of disposal options) look a lot of different ways depending on your preconceived idea,” Knowles said.

Another option not included in AECOM’s report involves moving ash at existing disposal sites into a network of bunkers after they have been sealed on all sides with a synthetic liner. Virginia-based BERM Material Management, which developed this approach – called “macroencapsulation” – hit on AECOM for “erroneous and misleading” conclusions.

Some lawmakers, environmentalists, and residents near the four current ash sites contend the health threat and risks of future remediation work might far exceed any savings achieved by leaving the waste in place.

A report by the University of New Hampshire professor Kevin Gardner and researcher Scott Greenwood concluded “similar efforts in the nearby states Maryland and South Carolina have demonstrated success excavating, recovering and beneficially using coal ash . . . to manage and close legacy impoundments.”

In their summary, Gardner and Greenwood said recycling ash will eliminate the long-term risk of groundwater and surface water contamination, create local jobs to support an industry not currently operating in Virginia, and the tax revenues that come with it, as well as, lower state-funded construction costs that could be borne by ratepayers.

Benforado, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said, “not only is there a need for (recycled) ash in Virginia, but it’s a very feasible solution to this environmental problem but also is just so sensible from an economic and policy perspective.”

Jim Pierobon

Jim Pierobon, a policy, marketing and social media strategist, was a founding contributor to Southeast Energy News. He passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer in 2018.