Louisville company gives ash a good use Pioneering efforts convert coal waste (Louisville, Kentucky) “It’s a good product,” Charah President and CEO Charles Price said of the ash mix. “It makes a really good concrete mix. Nobody’s just pushed it or explored it in the past.” A large, coal-fired power plant like Louisville Gas & Electric Co.’s 1,470-megawatt Mill Creek plant in southwestern Jefferson County can burn millions of tons of fuel a year — and leave behind hundreds of thousands of tons of ash that many plants flush into a sediment pond or haul to a landfill.The challenge for Charah, a Louisville coal-waste management company: Turn that ash into cash.At Mill Creek, where Charah has worked under contract since 2001, ash is processed and sold as construction fill, reducing disposal costs and saving LG&E $400,000 a year.In Tampa, where a next-generation clean-coal plant produces 120,000 tons a year of high-carbon slag as a byproduct, Charah developed a process to burn or sell most of the leftovers, saving Tampa Electric Co. $3.6 million a year in disposal costs.In Virginia, the company has just launched a line of lightweight concrete mix made from ash. It will be sold in Home Depot stores there. Last month the product won first-place honors for Charah in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency competition.”They’ve been very innovative in developing markets for the processed ash,” said Jack Groppo, senior engineer with the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research.”Charah prides itself in being a trendsetter,” said company President and CEO Charles Price. The company has patents pending on its slag processing techniques, on the concrete mix and on the twin-handled plastic bags that carry the mix.A 29-pound bag of Charah mix makes as much concrete as 40 pounds of regular concrete mix, and it’s just as strong as concrete made with sand, Price said. The product is being sold in 20 stores in Virginia, where Charah built a $3 million plant. Price hopes to build several more plants and extend the distribution area.The mix “is a good value for our customers, and it is comprised of 55 percent recycled materials, which helps the environment,” Jack Rheinhold, a concrete products merchant for Home Depot, said in a statement.”It’s a good product,” Price said. “It makes a really good concrete mix. Nobody’s just pushed it or explored it in the past.”Pushing new ideas is a key to Charah’s success. The company was founded in 1987 and has 50 employees with operations in Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.The company’s first ash clean-up projects sent coal refuse to landfills. But Price said it was clear to him that times were changing — and ash disposal would have to change, too. “If we were going to be successful, we had to find uses and beneficial ways to use the ash.”Charah’s first try at marketing ash came in 2000 through sales to concrete block makers in North Carolina, where Charah handles ash for Duke Energy.”That’s where we got the idea that this material is good. It makes good concrete. They use it every day in blocks,” Price said. “We ought to be able to take it, put it in a bag with cement, and sell a lightweight concrete mix to the retailers like Home Depot.”It was an idea that would bear fruit, but only after several years of research and development.Companies “have tried for years to use ash, because it’s a cheap raw material,” Price said. But many failed because “they would just go to utilities and dig it up or load it, just take it the way it was and it wasn’t usable.” Charah’s developed better ways to process ash and sort it by size.For every 10 tons of coal burned, a power plant generates about 1 ton of ash. The fine, powdery residue is called fly ash. Bottom ash is the larger, heavier bits that range from gravel-sized nuggets to grains of “black sand.”Consistent sizing is critical to buyers, Price said. “We really, really are particular on quality control. The products that we make from the ash and sell day in and day out are the same.”Because of Charah’s contacts with LG&E and Kentucky Utilities, Price knew about problems at the Mill Creek plant, where bottom ash had been flushed into a sediment pond for nearly 30 years. By 2001, the pond was choking on the accumulated refuse, and LG&E faced some expensive choices. It could spend $40 million or so on a new pond, or bury the ash at an on-site landfill for more than $6 per ton.”We spent three years developing a market for their bottom ash,” Price said, working with the Metropolitan Sewer District to develop the sand-like product that it would approve for filling in trenches around drainage and sewer work.Charah sells black sand for about $4 per ton. It gets a subsidy from LG&E of about $2.45 a ton.That’s still cheaper than landfilling the ash or digging a new ash pond, so LG&E is happy with the process, said Mill Creek plant manager Mike Kirkland.”It works great,” Kirkland said — and it’s nice to see a coal byproduct go to a good use. “When you take a product that came out of the ground and you can put it safely back in the ground, that’s about as environmentally sound as you can get.”Still, coal-ash use doesn’t win universal applause.”It depends on the compositions of the ash and how it’s being used,” said Louisville’s Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council. He worries that Kentucky is lax in licensing and monitoring the recycling projects, which he contends can allow dangerous materials to seep into groundwater.Ash is made up mostly of oxides of safe materials such as silicon, aluminum, iron and calcium. But it can also contain dangerous toxins such as lead, mercury and arsenic — especially the fly ash, which absorbs such materials in the power plant smokestack. If it’s spread on the ground or used as a backfill where it could be exposed to water, the poisons could leach into the soil, FitzGerald said.”Bottom ash is much less of a concern,” FitzGerald said. Ash locked into concrete is also relatively safe.Price said his product from Mill Creek is all bottom ash — and that it has been tested at UK and approved by the Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District for use in MSD projects.”We’ve been using it very successfully,” said MSD Executive Director Bud Schardein. The black sand has also been used in area roadwork. Charah donated enough for Bellarmine University to build a new athletic track.In Florida, Charah designed and built a $2 million processing unit that lets a Tampa Electric coal gasification plant burn most of its waste material and sell the rest for uses such as sandblast grit, roofing singles and a cement ingredient.Now Price hopes other coal gasification plants, which are expected to be built around the country, will license Charah’s technology to handle coal waste.Price launched the utility construction company, named after his son and daughter, Charles and Sarah, in his native Madisonville, Ky.Such ash-removal projects opened the door to contracts with utilities such as Duke Energy in North Carolina and with Reliant Energy in Pennsylvania.In 2001, when it began the Mill Creek project, Charah opened an office in Louisville. Last year, Charah moved to Louisville — along with Price and his wife, Janet Price, vice president of the company.In Louisville, the company found more convenient connections to air travel, and contact with companies in related fields. “It has just been a godsend,” Charles Price said.
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