Should Congress include a provision in its transportation bill barring U.S. EPA from regulating coal ash as a hazardous material? During today's OnPoint, Kirk Benson, chairman and CEO of Headwaters, the nation's largest recycler of coal ash, makes the case for adding environmental and health riders relating to coal ash to the final bill. Benson also explains how regulatory uncertainty has caused a sharp decline in the amount of coal ash being recycled.
Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Kirk Benson, chairman and CEO of Headwaters. Kirk, thanks for coming on the show.
Kirk Benson: Thank you very much for having me.
Monica Trauzzi: Kirk, Headwaters is the nation's largest recycler of fly ash and fly ash is something we've been hearing a lot about lately in the transportation bill discussion. Talk a bit about how fly ash contributes to the discussion on the construction of roads and bridges and what the proposals are for how it could make its way into the transportation bill.
Kirk Benson: Fly ash is an absolutely, a critical material for transportation in the United States. It's used across the country to lower the cost of our infrastructure and transportation projects. For example, it's used in the new Bay Bridge in San Francisco that's being built. It's used in the Metro system in Washington, D.C. It's used in the new bridge that was built up on the Mississippi in Minneapolis. So, it's widely used in transportation. In fact, it reduces the cost of federal and state governments by over $5 billion every year. And so it is an integral part of transportation and it can become part of transportation bill because of the House attached fly ash link, which leads to the transportation bill that's now being discussed by the conference committee.
Monica Trauzzi: And there's some talk about how EPA should regulate it, whether it should be considered a hazardous material and how strongly that should be regulated as a result. Why don't you believe that EPA should regulate it as a hazardous material?
Kirk Benson: So, the EPA has been attempting to regulate fly ash for over two years and they have a hazardous proposal and a non-hazardous proposal, but there's been no progress from a regulatory perspective. What the language that's in the conference committee does is it takes all of the learning that the EPA has created over the last two years, it creates a national standard that is protective of the environment and human health. And so it's basically adopting what the EPA has learned and putting it into a permit program that will greatly improve the standards around the disposal of fly ash.
Monica Trauzzi: But there is conflicting research about the hazards of fly ash and is the transportation bill really the most effective vehicle for moving legislation that is really more focused on the environment and health?
Kirk Benson: Well, again, the use of fly ash is primarily a transportation issue, so it clearly fits in the conference committee. And the national standard that is provided in this legislation addresses the environment and so it's protective of the environment and human health. The standards between the EPA's proposed regulations and the standards in the bill language are virtually identical, so there's no additional protection that would come from the EPA regulation.
Monica Trauzzi: When you talk to lawmakers though, this is kind of one of those sticky issues when it comes to the transportation bill and many of them have indicated that they just want to get this bill passed as cleanly as possible. So, when you hear things like that, what are the prospects for this?
Kirk Benson: Well, I'm always hopeful that the right thing will be done and so in this instance, fly ash is saving the federal and state governments over $5 billion in transportation. So this is clearly germane to the transportation bill. And it is an opportunity to resolve a problem that is transportation as much as it is environmental. And so we're very hopeful that we'll get bipartisan support. If there was strong bipartisan support in the House and we think that as the language evolves in the conference committee we'll have bipartisan support in the Senate as well.
Monica Trauzzi: And there is a bit of a PR machine working here to try to get this legislation to move. You've also met with folks on the Hill. Based on those conversations, where do you think we might see this go?
Kirk Benson: I think that we do have an opportunity for bipartisan support. So there were five Democrat and Republican cosponsors when the legislation was originally introduced and we think that there are amendments to the existing language that will improve the quality of the bill and it will create bipartisan support.
Monica Trauzzi: Stepping out a bit from the transportation bill and looking at your business model more broadly, what are the prospects as EPA begins to regulate coal-fired power plants and emissions from coal and we're seeing a lessening of coal use, what does your business model look like and what are the long-term prospects for your business?
Kirk Benson: Well, the important part of the recycling that we are engaged in uses high-quality fly ash. As coal-fired power plants are shut down, it does restrict the supply of ash, but fortunately we have significant market share, a little bit under 50 percent market share. It gives us additional locations where we can address supply. So, because of the value of ash, we think that there is an opportunity to continue to use this high-quality ash as a replacement for Portland cement in transportation projects.
Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it there. Thank you for coming on the show.
Kirk Benson: You're welcome. Thank you very much.
Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
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