file under: Industrial, Geotechnical, Bioremediation, North America, Latin America

Industrial Solutions Rise from the Ashes

Recent coal ash slurry spills in the United States and red mud releases in Hungary have drawn the worldwide attention of environmentalists, regulators and industrial officials. These spills have had long-lasting effects on local communities and ecosystems, and have also spurred a reevaluation of how industrial residuals are managed, produced, stored and disposed of.

With regulatory changes and large industrial demands, the need for proactive environmental, design, geotechnical and operational services will be highly important for the entire industry. 

Many types of industrial production create byproducts that must be managed. While producing vital assets, energy companies and industrial producers must also find ways to reduce, store and reuse the residual byproducts that are created. Traditionally, some byproducts have been beneficially reused as substitutes in construction materials, such as road base, concrete and wallboard. However, all of the residuals created cannot be completely reused immediately, necessitating some form of onsite storage, such as wet residual impoundments.

In the face of changing regulations and heightened industry awareness, CDM Smith is helping several clients in North and South America assess current residual systems, close storage ponds, and design innovative new ways of storing and treating the residuals in these enclosures.

A Changing Industry
The state of industrial residuals management is in flux. Improved technology and an increased focus on sustainability are important factors, but recent industrial spills have accelerated the process with proposed regulations and environmental safeguards.

“The industry is changing,” explains John Reichling, CDM Smith vice president. “Byproducts in wet storage are not typically revenue generators, so in the past, impoundments were not heavily regulated and were a back-end concern. However, within the last 5 years or so, the industry has started to change how residuals are processed, and the byproduct management market has really exploded.”

Increased oversight and sustainability are now in force to protect local environments and communities, but there is plenty of work left to be done. “The old impoundments aren’t going away,” continues Reichling. “A big problem for a lot of producers is what to do with the impoundments that already exist.”

Industrial Residuals illustration wet stackingCoal-Fired Industrial Solutions
For electric utilities that rely on coal as a fuel source, coal combustion products—or coal ash byproduct—that were not able to be reused have typically been sluiced to wet storage ponds. To help clients like these, CDM Smith is designing the closures of dormant coal ash ponds across the United States. “We are helping a client review current and proposed regulations, and collecting data onsite to identify design, operation and maintenance gaps that need to be addressed,” explains Reichling. “Our hydraulic, geotechnical and civil evaluations are Industrial Residuals illustration dry stackingbeing used to design the best solutions for closing ash ponds.”

To better manage the issues that arise with storing wet coal ash, industrial producers are making the move to dry ash handling and storage. Embracing this shift, CDM Smith is performing the permitting and design of a new landfill for a power utility in the southeastern United States. “Our client has been way ahead of the curve on this,” says Reichling. “They began converting from wet to dry ash handling in the early 2000s, anticipating increased regulatory attention to pond operations. By starting early, they have assumed a leadership role in responsibly managing coal combustion products and are providing valuable input to the regulatory process.”

Avoiding Red Mud Red Alerts
In South America, CDM Smith is working with Alcoa, a major global aluminum producer, to design and assess impoundment solutions for the red mud byproduct in Suriname and Brazil. “Every pound of produced aluminum metal requires 2 pounds of alumina oxide powder and creates 4 pounds of red mud waste that has to be moved and stored,” explains Kevin Riley, CDM Smith industrial sales director.

“We’ve all seen the damage created by another aluminum company’s red mud spill in Hungary in 2010. Alcoa is a world leader in finding ways to minimize the environmental impacts of industrial residue management.” Riley continues, “A few years ago, we helped Alcoa implement a dry stacking residue storage area in Suriname, and now we are conducting dam break analyses and drafting emergency action plans for several facilities in Brazil.”

Geraldo Paes, Alcoa bauxite residue manager for Latin America and the Caribbean, describes the importance of emergency management and preparedness, “Alcoa has always had a strong commitment to sustainability, and proper management of our bauxite residue facilities is one of the key aspects to meeting our goals.”

“These are complex types of projects,” shares Riley. “With regulatory changes and large industrial demands, the need for proactive environmental, design, geotechnical and operational services will be highly important for the entire industry.”