Coal Ash exposure more hazardous than reported earlier by EPA – a potential headache for Chapel Hill Town’s coal ash cleanup efforts

Photo of exposed coal ash at 828 MLK Boulevard in Chapel Hill, courtesy of The Center for Biological Diversity.

COMMUNITY; ENVIRONMENT

By Michelle Cassell
Managing Editor 

Updated January 13, 2024

This article has been updated to reflect the following changes:

  1. This sentence: “Prior to the EPA petition, the Town of Chapel Hill has been moving forward with a solution to remove the dump under the North Carolina Brownfields Program” has been changed to “Prior to the EPA petition, the Town of Chapel Hill has been moving forward with a solution to contain the dump under the North Carolina Brownfields Program.”
  2. William Hunneke was incorrectly identified as the person responsible for working as the contact for the Town of Chapel Hill’s pending Brownfields Application.  He is not.  The correct person is Sharon Eckard.  Mr. Hunneke is the DEQ contact to the EPA for the Superfund Application.

New findings from the EPA indicate that coal ash is more hazardous than they had previously thought. The recent EPA draft risk assessment report was compiled in October 2023 and recently released in an 82-page document. The findings show that even low levels of arsenic and gamma radiation, which are both present in coal ash residuals (CCRs), increase cancer risk.

This is 35 times higher than previously acknowledged in an earlier EPA risk assessment. The report also finds that depending on the level of exposure, other potentially critical health problems, such as high blood levels of arsenic and cadmium, are linked to a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

The coal ash dump is located at 828 Martin Luther King Boulevard. It encompasses approximately 60,000 cubic yards of coal ash and construction byproduct contaminants. The current Chapel Hill Police Department is located there and is situated on 10 acres of Bolin Creek Parkway included in the cleanup.

These findings could cause trouble for the Town of Chapel Hill’s efforts to work with the state on cleanup. When asked how the town will respond, Chapel Hill Town Manager Chris Blue told TLR, “We are gathering information about the EPA’s recent draft risk assessment and will continue to work with both the EPA and the DEQ to meet their requirements for any additional remediation or redevelopment of the property.”

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the EPA to consider the Chapel Hill coal ash dump be cleaned up under the Superfund program on Oct. 18, 2023. The EPA has a year to respond. 

“EPA’s proposed finding that arsenic poses a cancer risk 35 times higher than previously acknowledged only strengthens our petition to have Chapel Hill’s coal ash dump cleaned up under the federal Superfund program,” said Perrin de Jong, Southeast staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Arsenic levels on site were already found to exceed EPA’s prior protective standard by 500%. But with this revised arsenic risk assessment, the danger posed by leaving the dump in place to public health, wildlife, air, and water couldn’t be clearer,” de Jong added.

NC Brownfields solution vs EPA Superfund

Prior to the EPA petition, the Town of Chapel Hill has been moving forward with a solution to contain the dump under the North Carolina Brownfields Program. This program defines a “brownfield site” as an abandoned, idled, or underused property where the threat of environmental contamination has hindered its redevelopment. The Brownfields Program is the state’s effort to break this barrier to the redevelopment of these sites. The Brownfields Property Reuse Act of 1997[NCGS 130A310.30 et seq.] sets forth DEQ’s authority to work with prospective developers to put these brownfields sites back into reuse.

In short, the Brownfields Program provides a path for a “redevelopment program” to proceed without completely removing all the coal ash.

The Brownfields Program is run by the state and exists primarily to help property owners develop contaminated property without fully cleaning it up. The applicant gets protection from liability in exchange for certain limited cleanup measures required by the state, and it allows them to develop the site without worrying about getting sued for “kicking up contamination” in the process of redeveloping the site, according to de Jong.

Superfund is managed by EPA and is generally considered to be a more stringent program for the cleanup of contaminated sites. Previous sites selected have been fully remediated under the Superfund program. According to the EPA Superfund protocol, development cannot proceed until the contaminants are completely removed.

The Town of Chapel Hill has argued that the risk of digging up, transporting and thereby possibly exposing the community to more contamination would be riskier than paving over parts that could be adequately contained.

William Hunneke, the Superfund Section Chief at the NC Department of Environmental Quality, notified de Jong of the receipt of the petition by the EPA. Hunneke is the NC DEQ official who is the DEQ contact coordinating with the EPA, which is processing the Superfund petition from the Center for Biological Diversity. Sharon Eckard is the DEQ contact coordinating with the Town of Chapel Hill Brownfields Agreement.

If the EPA rejects the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition, then the NC DEQ could move forward with developing the site under the Brownfields Program.

Comment from The Town of Chapel Hill

The Town of Chapel Hill’s Executive Director for Strategic Communications, Susan Brown, sent the following on Jan. 10:

“We are currently working with DEQ to finalize a draft Brownfields Agreement that we plan to share publicly as part of a public meeting sometime this winter/spring. This would be in addition to the statutorily required 30-day public comment period that would take place prior to the agreement being finalized and recorded.  At that time, based on feedback from NCDEQ and consideration of this new information, Council will have the opportunity to consider the timing of next steps.

“A final Brownfields Agreement will describe what uses the DEQ will allow on the property based on additional remediation, ongoing monitoring, and other requirements or land use restrictions. The Town is asking the DEQ to consider allowing a range of possible uses that includes: a municipal service center, office, retail, recreation, associated parking, and infrastructure related to the North-South Bus Rapid Transit Project. The Town is not requesting an allowance for housing of any kind.”

Prior information regarding the coal ash dump site can be found in a TLR article here.


Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news. 

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2 Comments on "Coal Ash exposure more hazardous than reported earlier by EPA – a potential headache for Chapel Hill Town’s coal ash cleanup efforts"

  1. Marjorie J OReilly | January 12, 2024 at 11:07 am | Reply

    Thank you,Michelle, for covering this hot topic.

  2. The amount of coal ash present on the site should initiate a Super Fund remediation protocol for full clean up. If the lesser designation under the Brownfields Program is to be petitioned for, there should be a requirement that the land not be used for recreation or play grounds in perpetuity.

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