Potential value of coal ash for CSX, entrepreneurs looms in landfill fights in SE Georgia

By David Pendered

Hauling coal ash to landfills as proposed in southeast Georgia offers CSX Corp. the opportunity to offset declines in coal transport, and presents opportunities for entrepreneurs who can unlock value in the residue of burnt coal, according to the railroad and a Virginia-based think tank.

Uniontown, Ala. has concurred to the Arrowhead Landfill, which accepts coal as from a spill in Tennessee and has created more than 30 jobs. Credit: nytimes.com

Uniontown, Ala. has concurred to the Arrowhead Landfill, which accepts coal as from a spill in Tennessee and has created more than 30 jobs. Credit: nytimes.com

CSX singled out coal ash as a bright spot in its otherwise gloomy report for the first quarter of 2016. CSX reported a 14 percent decline in revenue for the quarter, which reflects markers including a 5 percent volume decline.

CSX and other railroads are being pummeled by the precipitous decline in coal transports as the global economy imports less coal from the U.S.

CSX said in its 2015 annual report that the baseline coal market had dropped from $3.7 billion in revenue in 2011 to $2.3 billion in 2015 – “and will continue to decline in 2016 and beyond.”

In this environment, coal ash looks like a good alternative to coal for the haulers. The company can use existing rail lines to haul coal ash from power plants to proposed landfills in Jesup, in southeast Georgia. Some power plants are being required to change the way they handle waste, thus creating the potential landfill market in rural SE Georgia.

CSX reported that volume grew in the transport of minerals, including fly ash, a type of coal ash harvested from chimneys. According to the company’s quarterly report, filed April 12 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

  • “Volume grew, with mild winter weather allowing for an earlier start to the northern aggregates shipping season and the beginning of a long-term fly ash remediation project.”
Coal ash waste sites, 2009

The Southern Environmental Law Center used federal records to create this map of coal ash sites in 2009, the latest available. Credit: southernenvironment.org

The statement did not elaborate on the remediation project. Additional information about the project was not available Sunday evening.

CSX has two routes that serve coal to the southeast. They just as easily can transport coal ash from northern areas. According to CSX, these corridors include:

  • “Southeastern Corridor – This critical part of the network runs between CSXT’s western gateways of Chicago, St. Louis and Memphis through the cities of Nashville, Birmingham, and Atlanta and markets in the Southeast.  … The corridor also provides direct rail service between the coal reserves of the southern Illinois basin and the demand for coal in the Southeast.”
  • “Coal Network– The CSXT coal network connects the coal mining operations in the Appalachian mountain region and Illinois basin with industrial areas in the Southeast, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, as well as many river, lake, and deep water port facilities. … Roughly one-third of the tons of export coal and the majority of the domestic coal that the Company transports is used for generating electricity.

Meantime, a think tank in Virginia has hopes of converting coal ash into rare metals.

This presents a tremendous potential return on investment when compared to current practices of using coal ash to create concrete and other building materials. The federal government provides guidelines for using coal ash in highway materials.

Coal ash, map

Jesup, the site of a proposed coal ash landfill, is located in the Altamaha River basin, which the Nature Conservancy has identified as “America’s Last Great Places” and has established the Altamaha Bioreserve. Credit: mapquest.com, David Pendered

However, the competition for rare earth metals offers a glimmer of hope for remediating coal ash.

The Appalachia America Energy Research Center offered the notion that coal ash may contain the rare earth metals that now occur mainly in China, which controls 97 percent of the earth’s supplies of rare metals used to build solar cells and other high tech machines.

According to the AAERC’s website, now dormant for several years:

  • “This project will transform hazardous waste into high-value strategic metals, by refining coal fly ash at a cost of ~$200 per ton to make metals worth ~$500 per ton, thus creating a powerful new generation of high-tech businesses. Because Power Utility Companies are coming under increasing pressure from the EPA to control the disposal and landfilling of Coal Fly Ash, reclamation of rare earth metals from Coal Fly Ash will turn huge cost centers (Coal Fly Ash deposits) into significant profit centers for rare earth metals, simultaneously averting both a significant national economic and ecological disaster.”

Meanwhile, CSX and its landfill partners are promoting the landfilling of coal ash in southeast Georgia. Evidently, the industrialists have wagered that coal ash will have great value at some time in the future.


David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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