By Dr. Edward Marshall
The Local Reporter
It feels like the recent 6-3 Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe — which ignored scientific and medical evidence, public opinion opposing their decision, and precedent. Now, the once liberal Chapel Hill Town Council made an illiberal 8-1 decision to proceed with a plan to build 175-250 housing units at 828 MLK Boulevard on top of 60,000+ tons of toxic coal ash, which puts the health and well-being of the children who would live there at risk.
It ignores the medical evidence, public opposition, and precedent. Worse, this tragic decision is a betrayal of two core values — children’s health and safety and the public’s trust. The Town must protect our children rather than the developers. If this project proceeds to the next stage, rather than removing all coal ash, it will be a permanent stain on our collective conscience and a defiance of common sense and morality.
Let’s review the evidence.
The health of children is at risk: The scientific and medical evidence are crystal clear. The Centers for Disease Control says coal ash contains 16 toxic chemicals including lead, mercury, boron, and arsenic — carcinogens that cause cancer and death. They pose significant risks to children and pregnant women: “there is no safe level of lead exposure, particularly for children.” Physicians for Social Responsibility states, “If eaten, drunk, or inhaled, these chemicals can cause cancer, cognitive deficits, developmental delays, behavioral problems, heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, reproductive problems, and impaired growth in children.” Why on earth would the Town even be considering this project before removing all coal ash?
The 828 Site is Unsafe for Housing: The Environmental Integrity Project’s senior coal ash attorney analyzed the Town consultant’s (Hart & Hickman) analysis of the site and found that “the site is not safe for redevelopment as a residential property, and it fails to show that this site is not adversely affecting local surface water.” He said there was little or no analysis of the impacts of boron and lithium, key carcinogens. How many tons of coal ash are there at 828? How deep is it? Is it stable? Why has there not been a thorough structural engineering analysis to find out? Why has UNC not taken responsibility for their coal ash?
Coal Ash is Already Exposed at 828 and Presents a Risk: Councilman Adam Searing took pictures in mid-May, 2022, showing extensive coal ash exposure right now on the hill sloping down to Bolin Creek. Then, the Town put down cloth to literally cover up their folly. Children would be playing in this, putting their health in serious jeopardy. Bolin Trail walkers beware!
The 2014 Coal Ash Management Act Prohibits Construction on or Near Coal Ash: “Structural fill (with coal ash in it) must not be within 50 feet of a property boundary, wetland, bank of a perennial stream or surface water body, or within 300 feet of a private dwelling or well.” Why would the Town not honor that law? Instead, they are deploying a technical end-around by using the Department of Environmental Quality’s remediation process. This is a failure of values — putting the profits of developers ahead of the health and well-being of children who would live at 828 MLK.
Faux Democracy: The decision making process is also flawed. The Town likes to give the appearance of being open and democratic. But it’s not in reality. The decisions have already been made, but they have to check off the “community engagement” box. So, you get three minutes to speak your piece at the end of a meeting where the Council has privately already made the decision. It’s a sham. It’s faux democracy. In fact, the June 22nd public forum on coal ash, hosted by 7 citizen advocacy groups, was precisely because the May 16th DEQ hearing did not allow all to be heard or questions answered. The Town really doesn’t want to hear our views, but they want to appear to. What is their real motive? We are also drowning in process — advisory committees that have no power, biased staff committees, high paid consultants and flawed reports and through it all, our values get ignored. The “developers Council” has the majority and will do whatever they want. It’s time for a real change — to values-based leadership.
To restore trust and protect the health of children and families, the Town must remove all coal ash at 828 MLK before any housing is built there — or drop the project altogether. Resistance will go away once we can trust our leaders again, once our core values of respect, health and safety and true democracy are honored. Until then, it’s all an illusion.
Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University.