Meet the Sustainability Leader: The Coal Authority – Recycling and Resources

With entries soon closing for edie's revamped 2019 Sustainability Leaders Awards, this new feature series will showcase the achievements of the 2018 winners, revealing their secrets to success. Up next: our 2018 Recycling and Resources winners, The Coal Authority.

Improving the legacy of coal mining in Britain lies at the heart of the Coal Authority’s resource management approach. It’s an approach which goes beyond simply managing the environmental impacts and public safety risks associated with historic mining activities – the Coal Authority is finding new ways to generate value from the waste materials it deals with, resulting in significant cost and efficiency savings.

Each year around 5,000 dry tonnes (over 30,000 wet tonnes) of iron ochre, known as hydrous ferric oxide (HFO), is generated by the Coal Authority’s mine water treatment schemes. Previously this material was sent to landfill as a waste by-product, but it has now been recognised as a valuable asset.

In 2015, the Coal Authority set up an innovation team to help drive more sustainable practices across its operations. Part of the team’s remit was to investigate the potential for reusing HFO rather than send it to landfill. The team discovered that the properties of HFO make it an ideal product for contaminated land and phosphate treatment due to its ability to absorb substances. Its striking colour is also ideal for use as a pigment.

One of the first market applications for HFO in a semi-dried state has been in the contaminated land sector, where it is being used to treat arsenic at a contaminated land site in northeast England. This has enabled the developer to retain around 9,000 cubic metres of arsenic contaminated soils onsite, rather than send it to landfill. Before the process was signed off, the HFO product used was subject to rigorous testing and review by the Environment Agency.

The Coal Authority is now working with water companies to develop new HFO products for phosphate removal. A trial has already been carried out to treat primary effluent in wastewater treatment using mine water, and further trials are being undertaken using HFO sludge in secondary treatment effluent.

There may also be potential to use HFO to reduce hydrogen sulphide odour problems in anaerobic digestion plants, and to create an art pigment from HFO – here the Coal Authority is working with UCL to develop this area of work further.

The Coal Authority achieved its first HFO sale in 2016, and HFO materials are now being stockpiled for future use. So far, this has helped offset over 3,000 tonnes of HFO to landfill, and the Authority estimates its work in this area this could result in landfill diversion cost savings of up to £550,000 a year (£150,000 for 2017-18) alongside an income generation of £30,000 in 2017-18, which is expected to rise to £200,000 by 2020. Incomes from the sale of HFO will help cover the cost of product development.

Given that there may be a variety of commercial uses for HFO reuse, the Coal Authority’s HFO project work has been split into a number of work streams and packages, each with set budgets and milestones to ensure that they provide value for money. There are still challenges to overcome – the quality of supplied material needs to be improved, for example. Here further innovation in drying and processing techniques will be required.

The Coal Authority is also working on ways to reduce the footprint of its mine water treatment schemes and generate HFO more efficiently, which will increase the overall sustainability of its operations. In turn, greater efficiencies will enable greater volumes and quality HFO to be produced for the market.

As well as the HFO extracted from the drying beds and lagoons of mine water treatment schemes, there are significant amounts mixed with organic matter in reed beds. The Coal Authority now has authorisation from the Environment Agency to use this as a fertiliser in agricultural applications, and is exploring new avenues to generate other products from this material.

This work is helping to shape the Authority’s strategic focus when it comes to capitalising on resource productivity. Prioritising the development of innovative and commercially feasible solutions and product ideas has led to an internal reassessment of costs and values – the organisation now looks to collaborate and work with a wider range of organisations to develop a more diverse business eco-system for shared value.

To aid further product innovation and knowledge sharing both internally and externally with key stakeholders, the Coal Authority has set up an innovation database hub for staff and suppliers to suggest new ideas which may be immediately acted on, or captured for future development.

What the judges said: “Taking an innovative approach to mining legacy, The Coal Authority has demonstrated how previously unsustainable operations can be transformed for the good of the planet. This is industrial symbiosis at its finest; generating revenues and creating a usable product from a waste stream.” edie’s 2019 Sustainability Leaders Award.”

edie’s 2019 Sustainability Leaders Award

Now in their 12th year, the RSA-accredited Sustainability Leaders Awards have undergone a major revamp, with a host of new categories and judges, a new Awards venue, and a new Mission Possible theme – making 6 February 2019 the biggest night of the sustainable business calendar.

The entry deadline for the 2019 Sustainability Leaders Awards is Friday, 14 September 2018. The Awards will then take place on the night of 6 February 2019 at the Park Plaza London, Westminster. 


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