Recycling waste: Fly ash becomes safe, economical job creator

by Jason Vollmer

It’s time to set the record straight about Montana’s fly ash. It’s time to tell Montanans the truth about how fly ash helps maintain our transportation and construction infrastructure for longer periods of time and at lower costs to taxpayers. It is a safe material and makes concrete stronger and last longer so our highways and bridges endure for decades.

During the Clinton administration, the Environmental Protection Agency twice certified fly ash as a safe, nonhazardous material.

I have spent much of my career in the fly ash industry. I am the president of Environmental Materials, Inc., a small fly ash marketing business in Billings, and a second generation fly ash marketer with 20 years in the industry. In the last year alone, our company – which buys and sells fly ash from regional coal-producing power plants — has grown fourfold: we now employ 38 hard-working Montanans. Environmental Materials is a true small business success story, thanks in no small part to fly ash.

Our company supplies coal fly ash to the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to stabilize oil field waste during the land reclamation process. Fly ash is proven to be a safe, economical reagent to dehydrate and lock up these materials before placement into landfills.

Yet, the future of our business — and other fly ash distribution companies like us — could be in peril if Congress doesn’t include bipartisan language in the final federal transportation bill to expand the use of fly ash in construction and transportation projects. Congress has the opportunity to do right by small businesses like ours, and by Montana, while also enhancing oversight by the EPA over state enforcement of new federal fly ash regulations.

Common sense logic: there is no such thing as a waste product; we just haven’t found a use for it yet!

Recycling fly ash positively impacts the environment: Fly ash reduces energy and water consumption, decreases the impact on our landfills, and cuts down on harmful emissions. According to the EPA, cement production is the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Production of one ton of Portland cement produces approximately one ton of CO2. So, for every one ton of fly ash used to replace one ton of cement in the concrete production process, the atmosphere is spared one ton of CO2 emissions. In 2010, that amounted to 11 million fewer tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

But fly ash also makes a ton of economic sense.

By using fly ash, Montana saves an estimated $12.5 million annually on concrete for its roads and bridges. Nationwide, fly ash will save the country $5.2 billion every year in transportation and construction costs. That’s because roads constructed with fly ash last twice as long as those without. A total of $104 billion will be saved over the next 20 years if fly ash is safely recycled into our transportation projects.

And then there are the jobs. A recent Veritas Economic Report estimated that one quarter of a million jobs would be lost if fly ash were no longer available for use in U.S. construction projects. Our company would certainly go out of business and our 38 workers would be forced into the unemployment lines.

We care deeply about the environment; we are also passionate about jobs and opportunities to grow our businesses. Through the beneficial use of fly ash, we can have both. We can have a positive impact on our land and natural resources by using an environmentally sound product in our transportation and construction projects. And, we can offer employment opportunities to our neighbors by sustaining and creating good-paying jobs.

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