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How RCRA Guides Waste Disposal and Site Cleanup for the Coal and Gas Industry

Coal and gas make up a significant portion of the United States' power production. Unfortunately, the industry has long experienced criticism and concern surrounding its health and environmental impact. Throughout the decades, both legislators and industry leaders have sought to optimize the processes of extracting, refining, and combusting these materials. A safer approach can enhance coal and gas production's sustainability and safety for both the workers and the environment.

Among the largest negative impacts are the waste products created by coal and gas processing. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), all hazardous waste must be properly managed to mitigate its effects on the environment and human health. The good news is that new technologies and procedures are allowing the industry to better control its waste disposal and clean up afterward.

What Does RCRA Entail?

RCRA covers hazardous waste cleanup in two fashions:

Hazardous waste facilities are subject to RCRA closure, which requires removing the waste or securing the site to prevent future pollution and other threats.

RCRA corrective action seeks to remediate environmental contamination caused by hazardous waste. This includes any toxic chemicals released into the soil and groundwater, atmosphere, and waterways.

As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, hazardous waste includes any sort of solid, liquid, sludge, or other refuse that presents a risk to humans and/or wildlife ("listed waste"). A discarded material may also be considered hazardous if it's highly combustible, corrosive, reactive, or toxic ("characteristic waste"). The EPA has established firm guidelines for various waste types and how they must be disposed of. For example, some refuse is not permitted in incinerators or landfills.

What Are RCRA's Guidelines for the Coal and Gas Industry?

The EPA is urging the coal industry to minimize its environmental impact by recycling Coal Combustion Products (CCPs), including:

  • Fly ash

  • Bottom ash

  • Flue Gas Desulfurization (FGD) gypsum

  • Wet and dry scrubber materials

  • Boiler slag

  • Fluidized Bed Combustion (FBC) ash

Many byproducts could be utilized for other aspects of production or sold to another industry. For example, coal is heated to produce coke, which is then used in iron production. Coke's byproducts have applications in other industrial processes.

As more than 7.6 billion tons of industrial waste are produced every year, This approach decreases the overall amount of waste that must be properly discarded under RCRA. Plus, it conserves virgin materials, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and creates new revenue streams for various industries.

Notably, the particulate matter and gas emissions created by coal production are no longer considered hazardous waste for the purposes of the RCRA. Coal combustion wastes are regulated under the RCRA's non-hazardous waste disposal guidelines.

Overall, the RCRA authorizes the EPA to set clear guidelines and processes for industrial waste mitigation. If a facility releases hazardous materials (or "characteristic waste") into the environment, it usually triggers RCRA closure, corrective action, or a combination thereof. The EPA's guidelines are flexible enough that facilities can implement the best methods for their needs, including operational controls, waste removal (i.e. clean closure), and the redirection of waste streams for recycling.


The scrubber projects and corrective actions taken under RCRA are creating a safer process for generating power from coal and gas, thereby mitigating their waste products' negative effects. From general site cleanup to hazardous waste disposal to recycling, there are many ways to reduce coal and gas facilities' environmental and health impacts.

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