Chapel Hill Town Council Continues to Reckon with Coal Ash; Approves Motion on Affordable Housing


By James Keifer

Between a police station and plenty of coal ash is the predicament the Chapel Hill Town Council found themselves in on Wednesday evening. An updated report found that an over 50-year-old coal ash dump poses no threat to public health in its current state.

A brownfield agreement

Town Economic Development Specialist Laura Selmer introduced an update on one of Chapel Hill’s long-standing problems. In 2013, the Town discovered the current headquarters of the Chapel Hill Police Department rests on the site used as a coal ash dump throughout the 1960s and ‘70s.

Selmer explained the purpose of the update was not meant to predict future risks of potential development, but to “determine current risk levels so that redevelopment and contamination can be jointly addressed through site redevelopment.”

The current plan of action calls for the town to operate within the scope of the Brownfields Property Reuse Act of 1997. Under a brownfields agreement, developers can ignore environmental liability barriers that would typically prevent them from financing a project, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. It also provides stipulations that developers must follow for making the site suitable for the intended use.

“A brownfield agreement would provide conditional liability in exchange for safely managing the existing contamination to provide a public benefit,” Selmers stated. “We are not seeking to shirk or reduce our responsibility as stewards of this property. We anticipate that redevelopment of this site under a brownfield agreement would greatly reduce exposure risks by addressing the critical issues and exposure pathway that we’ve discussed in this report.”

Genna Olson, a geologist with the Raleigh-based environmental consultant firm Hart & Hickman, gave an overview of findings from soil samples dug between zero to 2-feet deep to assess risks for residents, non-residential uses and greenway users in the site area. Samples between 0 to 10-feet deep were taken to assess risks for construction workers in the event of redevelopment work in the area.

Highlights from Olson’s report include:

  • The site is safe for its current and future use and is within Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) limitations.
  • The site does exceed limitations for residential use; it is not currently zoned for that use.
  • Contaminants in surface water and stream sediment in Bolin Creek have been found to be within acceptable levels set by the EPA.
  • No water supply wells are in the area so contamination of drinking water is not a concern.
  • It is recommended that permanent remediation measures be taken to prevent erosion and potential exposure to coal ash.

Olson recommended that the Town implement land-use restrictions around the site that would prohibit future installation of water supply wells. She also recommended that the Town develop an Environmental Management Plan requiring personal protective equipment and other measures to mitigate exposures for construction workers; the plan would also lay out goals for any potential residential development of the area.

‘Naturally does not mean safe’

The first voice to sound during the public comment period of the update was that of Robert Gelblum, who worked 35 years as an environmental lawyer, 25 of them with the DEQ and subsequently in the environmental wing of the North Carolina Attorney General’s office.

Gelblum stated he helped create the legal aspects of the brownfield program and added that the challenge for environmental remediation is not only water cleanup but also cleaning up soils to prevent contamination of water elsewhere.

“That doesn’t mean every effort within reason should be made to always remediate all contaminated media at a site,” he said. “But it does mean that where redevelopment makes a lot of sense, it might be OK to allow it sans remediation as long as [stringent] land-use restrictions are followed.”

Chapel Hill resident and environmental engineer Pamela Schultz said she previously held a position at the pharmaceutical company Merck where she tested chemicals to gauge risks to human health. Olson had pointed out many of the metals found in the study are naturally occurring. Schultz responded “naturally [occurring] does not mean safe.”

“For many metals [like lead] the level that we have [considered] a safe level of exposure has continually gone down over the years. Arsenic is another metal that seems to be heading down that path.”

According to the EPA, arsenic is one of several contaminants contained within coal ash that poses a risk to waterways, groundwater and drinking water and the air. Schultz added she feels concerned about potential residential use of the site and about the lack of continued monitoring.

‘This should not be a housing site’

Coal ash site boundary and exposure map. Courtesy of Town of Chapel Hill.

On Tuesday, the Friends of Bolin Creek published a newsletter criticizing the safety standards used in Hart & Hickman’s assessment. The newsletter said the risk assessment failed to adequately account for human health risks in two ways: The consultant used the least protective standard available in calculating the risk to human health at the site and the assessment lacks recommendations for permanent remedial actions that protect residents.

Nicholas Torrey, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and director of Friends of Bolin Creek, said the update used a riskier standard than an initial assessment performed in 2019. He explained that the earlier study used a 1-in-100,000 cancer risk threshold while the Hart & Hickman study used a far less protective cancer risk standard of 1-in-10,000. According to information provided by a toxicology consultant hired by the Town, a “1 in 10,000” excess cancer risk means there may be one additional case of cancer in a population of 10,000 persons above the population’s background cancer rate. Using an excess cancer risk of “1 in 100,000” is 10 times more protective as it is set at 1 excess cancer case in a population of 100,000 above the population background cancer rate.

“And obviously what [protective] standard will be used for a decision on this site is tremendously important.” Torrey said. “And we feel that you should not make decisions about this coal ash dump using the least protective standard that’s available.” He continued, “This should not be a housing site; I think that’s one thing that emerges from the assessments being done. This report confirms, again, that putting a residential project on top of a coal ash dump is a bad idea.”

Torrey pointed to one contradiction he saw within the report, namely that the assessment indicated the coal ash poses no current or future risk to the greenway in the area, but also acknowledges that erosion around the site is a problem, which he characterized as a lasting threat.

After public comment, councilperson Allen Buansi asked whether there are any ongoing monitoring requirements for the site. Olson responded that there are requirements during construction, along with annual inspections to check for any additional corrosion.

Selmer also added that for any development on the site, the Town would be considered a co-developer.

“It’s really up to Council to make a land-use decision,” councilperson Amy Ryan remarked. [It depends on] what we’re trying to achieve for the Town, what we can use it for and what’s going to be economically feasible with the cost of remediation.”

Other business at the meeting included:

  • Approving height increases for two buildings at the Glen Lennox apartment complex.
  • Extending a public hearing for a proposed development in the 100 block of Erwin Road.
  • Approving several text amendments to the Land Use Management Ordinance and Advisory Board membership policies.
  • Adopting a resolution that gives the town manager the power to authorize development of a collaborative affordable housing project.
  • Forwarding comments to an applicant regarding a concept plan in the 5500 block of Old Chapel Hill Road.
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1 Comment on "Chapel Hill Town Council Continues to Reckon with Coal Ash; Approves Motion on Affordable Housing"

  1. Elizabeth M.T. O'Nan | October 21, 2021 at 11:58 pm | Reply

    There is evidence that UNC’s coal ash dump was built below the water table. EPA states that all ground water comingles. What will prevent this dump from being a continual source of pollution in our drinking water? Saying there are no wells in use in the immediate area does not mean it is alright to poison the ground water with the coal ash dump. Why isn’t UNC helping to clean this dump up and monitor, diagnose and treat any health effects and environmental threats?

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