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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press
North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven speaks on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011, at the National Energy Center of Excellence at Bismarck State College in Bismarck, N.D., about legislation he has introduced to allow states to regulate coal ash. The energy center is one of the structures on campus that was built with concrete mixed with coal ash, supplied by North Dakota electric power plants. Watching Hoeven is Sandi Tabor, vice president for government affairs of the Lignite Energy Council, an industry group based in Bismarck, N.D.

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota coal ash, which is now sold to construction companies as a cement substitute, would become unmarketable if federal rules treat it as hazardous waste, a company executive said Tuesday.

"You'd create the stigma of dealing with a hazardous waste. Now, do we have to wear (protective) suits? Do we have to have an environmental guy on staff?" asked James Glass, a regional manager for Headwaters Resources, which sells ash generated by Great River Energy's Coal Creek electric power station near Underwood.

Glass and Terry Hildebrand, president of MDU Resources Group Inc., said North Dakota coal ash is used as a substitute for cement in highway and building construction. The ash saves money, creates a stronger concrete and cuts down on carbon dioxide emissions from cement production, they said.

Glass and Hildebrand are supporting legislation introduced last week by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., which would allow states to dispose of coal ash as regular household waste if they followed federal standards for doing so. The U.S. House approved a similar bill earlier this month.

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., are among the measure's sponsors. Hoeven held a news conference Tuesday to promote the legislation in a Bismarck State College building that was built from cement that included coal ash.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering a proposed rule that would classify the ash as hazardous waste, which would increase the cost of disposing of it. North Dakota does not have a landfill that takes hazardous waste, said Steve Tillotson, assistant director of the North Dakota Health Department's waste management division.

Environmental groups oppose Hoeven's measure, saying that tougher disposal standards for coal ash are needed because the ash contains lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals.

A catastrophic December 2008 spill from a coal ash disposal pond in eastern Tennessee gave supporters of stronger rules a fresh argument that they were needed.

Hoeven said his bill would allow states to regulate coal ash disposal and recycling if they followed federal solid waste standards. States that do not want to administer their own programs could rely on the EPA to do so, Hoeven said.

North Dakota's coal industry is supporting Hoeven's proposal. The state has seven coal-fueled electric power plants and a factory that produces synthetic natural gas from lignite coal. The state's lignite mines in west-central North Dakota produce close to 30 million tons of fuel annually.