“I wish to be cremated. One tenth of my ashes shall be given to my agent,
as written in our contract.”
– Groucho Marx
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder just signed three bills into law that allows the use of ashes created from the incineration of coal and municipal waste as beneficial products. These bills amend Part 31 (Water Resources Protection), Part 201 (Environmental Remediation) of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, as well as laws regulating liming material.
The bills remove certain by-products of industrial processes from the definition of “solid waste” and allow for a variety of uses as “inert material.” These uses include construction fill, fertilizers, building materials (like drywall) and cover at landfills. People have used these types of industrial wastes for decades in a variety of ways, reducing the amount that ends up in landfills, lowering the cost of construction of roads and developments, and reducing the need for virgin materials. The most plentiful of these materials is likely to be ash from coal-fired plants.
The use of coal to generate electricity produces ash in the form of fly ash and bottom ash. Fly ash represents about half of coal combustion residuals and is the material that is collected by stack filters, while bottom ash represents ten percent of residuals and is the stuff that is too heavy to be released into the stacks.
Depending on whom you talk to, coal ash is either an environmental scourge or a beneficial waste product created during the burning of coal. Storage and disposal of coal ash has the potential of creating serious environmental harms, like the recent release of up to 82,000 tons of coal ash into a North Carolina river. So reducing the amount of such materials through reuse seems like a good idea, if it can be done safely.
The new law will also apply to materials like cement kiln dust, incinerated municipal waste, foundry sands, water treatment facility sludges and the like. The use of these materials is not indiscriminate, as the law requires testing by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to approve materials for specific uses and limits the amounts of potentially hazardous constituents the material may contain. There are also registration and licensing requirements for the use of inert materials as fertilizers, soil conditioners or liming materials.
So, what types of “beneficial uses” can we expect?
- Beneficial Use 1: “[A]ggregate, road material, or building material that in ultimate use is or will be bonded or encapsulated by cement, limes, or asphalt.”
- Beneficial Use 2: [C]onstruction fill at nonresidential property or use as road base or soil stabilizer” as long as it meets certain minimum requirements.
- Beneficial Use 3: Applied to land as fertilizer or soil conditioner under specific circumstances and consistent with “accepted agricultural and management practices.”
- Beneficial Use 4: [S]tabilize, neutralize, solidify, or otherwise treat waste for disposal at solid or hazardous waste landfill, treat wastewater or wastewater sludge at a privately owned or publicly owned wastewater treatment plant, terat hazardous substances at an environmental response of leaking underground storage tank site, or as construction material at a landfill.
- Beneficial Use 5: Blend it “with inert materials or with compost and used to manufacture soil.”
Michigan is not the first state to promote the reuse of these types of by-products. As a result, MDEQ will not be creating a new regulatory regime without the benefit of experience from other jurisdictions. However, if you are considering taking advantage of these new uses for previously disposed material, you should take care to ensure that the uses and materials are consistent with the law and the regulations that will be promulgated in response.
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