By Brent Dezember | Chairman, National Precast Concrete Association
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed good sense in its decision last month to re-evaluate its previous proposed rule to categorize coal ash as a hazardous material. The initial proposed ruling was part of EPA’s response for stronger oversight to prevent another disaster like the 2008 slurry spill in Kingston, Tenn., when an estimated 1.1 billion gallons of wet coal ash breached a containment pond and flooded the surrounding area.
Nobody ever wants to see that type of disaster, and the EPA was right in pushing for tighter controls to protect groundwater and human health. But the initial proposal to declare coal ash as a hazardous material would have likely put a serious curb on the use of coal ash in concrete – meaning more coal ash would have gone into containment ponds. But citing a “newly developed methodology,” the EPA determined instead that encapsulating coal ash in concrete is actually a beneficial use for what is otherwise a waste material.
“The protective reuse of coal ash advances sustainability by saving valuable resources, reducing costs and lessening environmental impacts, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.
Last month’s massive coal ash spill in North Carolina just reinforces the sensible notion that we should reuse rather than store this type of waste in a landfill. It is good to see that the EPA is willing to consider all sides of the issue.
Hopefully OSHA will follow suit when it considers the 3,103 public comments submitted on its proposed rule to cut in half the exposure limit on silica in places like concrete and masonry facilities. Public testimony started March 8, and odds are that one of the themes will be that OSHA should want a sensible policy that can be implemented and enforced rather than a more theoretical “nice to have” scenario that potentially would cost manufacturers thousands of dollars in monitoring equipment and create additional bureaucracy.
This is not an antiregulatory missive. Employers need to be held accountable for protecting the health and safety of their employees, and it is our responsibility to be good stewards of our environment. With regard to silica exposure and other types of health and environmental issues, the regulations (the stick) are already in place. As with silica exposure, it is sometimes a lack of compliance with existing rules that creates problems. Perhaps the federal, state and local entities with oversight could look at strengthening incentives (the carrot) to develop more financial incentives that would encourage industry best practices.
We’ve seen the effect that these carrots can have, and it works. One of NPCA’s producer members, Shea Concrete Products in Amesbury, Mass., recently earned a Sustainability Award for installing a solar panel system (see pages 44-45) on the roof of its plant that made it a Net Zero energy consumer. Federal incentives helped finance the project. The investment was steep up front, but the long-term result will likely be immensely positive for Shea and the neighboring community, which will have more energy available as a result of having a major energy consumer operating at Net Zero status.
It is just one example of how the precast industry’s manufacturers and suppliers are rising to the challenge and proactively working to find win-win scenarios out there. There are many others.
Every industry has its less reputable practitioners that crank out inferior products and deliver inferior service just to make a quick profit. It frustrates all of the reputable businesses that are focused on high-quality products and great customer service and have a long-term commitment to their employees, their communities and the industry.
But in most cases the marketplace ultimately rewards the long-term thinkers and high-quality, responsible manufacturers. The industry is better off when regulatory bodies create rules that can help keep disreputable companies in line but don’t handcuff quality producers. The EPA’s coal ash ruling is an example that OSHA could follow. That’s just good sense.
Let’s Build the Future!