Competing Narratives About Coal Ash Surround 828 MLK Jr. Blvd.’s Future


By Kylie Marsh

Over the last six months, little has seemed front and center to the public concerning the future of the police station property located at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., widely known for its coal ash contamination. That changes this week as Chapel Hill Town Council considers what next steps to take with the location, specifically focused on the goal of creating a Municipal Services Center (MSC).

In the background, however, both the Town and private citizens and groups that have environmental concerns about the property have been active. On the Town’s end, additional testing of soil and water at the site were planned as noted in a memo from the former town manager, Maurice Jones, a report was filed with the state, and staff has developed next steps it wants the Town Council to affirm this week.

Local citizens and groups have also been looking into and organizing around the issue.

During the early part of the Jan. 25, 2023, Chapel Hill Town Council meeting, the chair of the town’s Environmental Stewardship Advisory Board (ESAB) stood to request an update on the status of a petition the board endorsed at its Dec. 13, 2022, meeting and forwarded to the council. The petition, put forward to ESAB by a group of citizens calling itself Safe Housing for Chapel Hill, asks for the Town to completely remove the coal ash from a site slated for redevelopment. The petition now has 200 signatures.

Therein lies the heart of the debate: whether it will take a full removal of the coal ash contamination to minimize risk or whether the risks can be mitigated to an acceptable level through other methods, such as cap-and-contain—the covering and sealing of contaminated areas. Also in question is what kind of redevelopment should take place on the property and occupied in what way by whom. Although housing plans have been put on hold for now, protection of workers was also discussed by council almost a year ago.

A quick recap about the property

The site is recognized as having tens of thousands of tons of coal ash that was dumped on the parcel by UNC-Chapel Hill, likely in the 1950s through 1970s timeframe. A 1963 edition of the Chapel Hill Weekly reports on a landfill eyesore on Airport Road, the former name of the MLK Jr. Blvd., for example. The Town of Chapel Hill bought the property in the ’80s and maintains that it learned of the contamination in 2013, per the Future of 828 website the Town has.

Since 2013, the Town has worked with various firms—including Falcon Engineering, Duncklee & Dunham and Hart & Hickman—to evaluate the contents of the coal ash and its concentrations in the groundwater, the soil and parts of Bolin Creek. The Town also executed some coal ash remediation on the property and received an acceptance notice of eligibility to enroll the property in the North Carolina Brownfields Program.

Brownfields are sites with environmental contamination that can come in a variety of forms: leaking underground gasoline and oil tanks; chemical factory effluent; and wastewater treatment overflows, to name a few. Coal ash dumping is just one of many types of contamination.

The most recent Human Health & Ecological Risk Assessment, released in 2021 by environmental consulting agency Hart & Hickman, found numerous toxic metals at concentrations that exceeded EPA and NCDEQ guidelines. Among those metals were cadmium, cobalt, copper, manganese, nickel, arsenic, barium, beryllium, mercury, selenium, strontium, chromium, lead, mercury, thallium, vanadium and zinc—all listed as carcinogens and severely damaging to vital organs.

Experts in disagreement with each other

Hart & Hickman recommended a combination of covering the coal ash with soil and pavement, stating that “risks can be addressed through development of the site,” actions such as installing a retaining wall to prevent public greenway users from exposure and land-use restrictions that would prevent future wells from being installed in the area.

However, some citizens and scientists see such actions as insufficient.

At the December 2022 ESAB meeting, Dr. Edward Marshall, a retired adjunct professor of engineering at Duke University, presented the board with a research report gathered by the Safe Housing for Chapel Hill group. Samples from the creek and ground water, as well as photos of exposed piles of coal ash taken by Chapel Hill Council Member Adam Searing accompanied analysis from “three of the nation’s top coal ash scientists,” as Marshall described them: Duke University researchers Dr. Julia Kravchenko and Dr. Avner Vengosh, and University of Alabama at Birmingham Dr. Kristina Zierold.

The Town is currently planning to build the MSC to house town departments for stormwater, parks and recreation, and Town police, plus meeting rooms for employees of those offices and a parking deck. According to Mayor Pam Hemminger, the building that currently sits at the parcel is in a state of disrepair: crumbling ceilings, leaking pipes, the works.

The Town intends to pursue a brownfields agreement, which the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) describes as a “covenant not-to-sue offered to a prospective developer of a brownfields property” that requires certain actions be taken by the developer “to make the property suitable for the proposed reuse.” The NCDEQ website notes that the agreement is not a total waiver of liability.

Chapel Hill’s government also secured a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a development firm that has experience with projects on brownfield sites. This has caused additional concern for locals.

Marshall says the town has not fully scrapped “the possibility of housing sometime down the road” at the site, and points to a memo published by former Town Manager Maurice Jones in September of last year.

“At the end of the day, the town council has not reversed their decision to build housing,” Marshall said over Zoom on Jan. 10 of this year.

Abel Russ, director of the Center for Applied Environmental Science in Washington, D.C., and an experienced coal ash attorney reviewed Hart & Hickman’s report last May. Russ called into question the information included in the report, saying it “fails to show that the site is not adversely affecting local surface water.” In addition, Russ said risk estimates are “too low:”

“The true risks of redevelopment would be even higher if the Risk Assessment were to account for all coal ash risk drivers,” like boron, lithium and molybdenum. Russ said boron was not analyzed in any of the soil samples and lithium does not appear in the Risk Assessment at all. Nor do cobalt and radium, which Russ wrote are carcinogenic.

“The failure to measure boron in surface water is particularly egregious,” Russ wrote, because the U.S. EPA considers it “a leading risk from coal ash sites.”

In addition, Hart & Hickman did not include “background metals measurements” in the soil analysis, which means measurements would be lower than might be actually present. Mayor Hemminger said that some of these metals are present all over the state because of the widespread use of coal ash a “structural fill,” that is, a mixture of coal ash and soil materials for foundations of new developments, in the state.

Marshall said the omission created a sort of “confirmation bias” that allows the Town to move forward with housing development because they do not have all the information they need to make an informed decision.

Safe Housing for Chapel Hill has also brought up the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA), which sets limits for how close any toxic material can be to natural sources of water or where it has the potential to be exposed to the public. Nick Torrey, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and a member of the board of directors of Friends of Bolin Creek (which SELC represents), clarified that CAMA doesn’t apply to just any coal ash anywhere.

“It’s written to apply to coal ash impoundments specifically located at power plants and this is not that [kind of site],” he said.

Hemminger also stated that there are several types of coal ash, and that the 2014 CAMA doesn’t pertain to what currently sits at 828 MLK Jr. Blvd.

However, Torrey went on to say that “the standards in that law show that coal ash is a very serious concern and there’s no reason to ignore those pollution concerns here—they need to be taken seriously.”

What to build, what to consider

The debate includes not only to what extent to remediate the coal ash, but also what to build on the site.

“We’re not aware of any coal ash site where they’ve done a Brownfields agreement to build things on top of a coal ash dump, and certainly not with housing,” said Torrey.

“As far as we know, there are no examples in the country of successfully putting housing on top of a coal ash dump. It’s not a stable material for building on in general,” he said. “This is an unconsolidated coal ash dump that would be redeveloped without a full cleanup under the brownfields program—and we’re not aware of that being done on a coal ash site, and certainly not for residential use.”

Marshall expressed frustration with a lack of Town responsiveness to the Safe Housing for Chapel Hill’s findings. In a Jan. 11 phone call, Hemminger provided reasons as to what has prevented the Town from acknowledging the group’s research.

“For the Town, it would be difficult to accept outside research that wasn’t sanctioned,” Hemminger said, noting that Safe Housing for Chapel Hill’s researchers also sent their information to NCDEQ.

“We don’t know where they took their samples from or when, and they’d have [had] to trespass to do it,” she said. “We’d have to have verification of this information.”

The town of Chapel Hill, like much of the state of North Carolina, is facing pressures from population increase driven by more employment opportunities—specifically in STEM industries and manufacturing—as well as from retirees and from expansion by UNC-Chapel Hill. The resulting displacement of longtime locals has added to a squeeze on the Town’s resources.

“We know we’re short housing. We need to build up to 500 units a year to at least have the people that work here to be able to live here,” Hemminger said. “Right now, there’s not enough housing in these categories, but especially affordable and middle ranges. We’re trying to find out how to do that without adding more cars, and where are the parcels, and how can we do that where they’re not on steep slopes.”

The Town is awaiting further research from Hart & Hickman, but it’s taking a long time to get that work reviewed by NCDEQ. According to the Town’s Coal Ash Disposal Site Remediation Project webpage, the Town filed Hart & Hickman’s Brownfields Assessment Report, dated Dec. 13, 2022, to NCDEQ on that same date. Meanwhile, the Town is also still reviewing historic assessment data and looking for a new project manager and a new town manager.

“There are many factors to consider before excavating the coal ash,” Hemminger said.

On one hand, in the past, the Town’s position was that $18 million was the price tag for complete removal to a landfill outfitted with a liner capable of holding the ash. Marshall contests this as well, stating that a Montana-based company with experience in coal ash management gave him a quote of not more than $5 million.

“When other parcels didn’t pan out for relocating the MSC … we took a look at it and asked if it made sense to do it on this site,” Hemminger said. “We’ve always intended to mitigate this site on some level.” Part of that mitigation per present plans would be placing a retaining wall to prevent coal ash from being accessible to the public, more dirt and concrete capping in certain places.

She also says the Town is doing its best to “follow the science” as Safe Housing for Chapel Hill has requested.

“I know some people got very distressed when they heard about other coal ash issues in the state, and I think this rose to the attention of folks thinking it was a similar situation and it’s not,” Hemminger said. “Resoundingly, it came back that this type of coal ash, once you cover it and cap it, that’s the best outcome we’ve been told from all the consultants.”

Torrey is adamant that the ash at the site does present significant risk, regardless of what’s built there. In that regard, his comments complement those of Safe Housing for Chapel Hill, a group with which neither he nor SELC has an association.

“There’s also this risk of spill. There’s a lot of flooding in that area; the floodplain goes right up to the edge of this steep slope of coal ash; and then there’s the risk of the slope sliding or eroding down and putting ash in the creek as well,” Torrey said. “All of those things are long-term risks that will be hanging over the water quality of this area and downstream, including Jordan Lake, for as long as that coal ash is left sitting there.”

“What we need to see is a specific plan. They really haven’t proposed something specific,” Torrey said.

“I think community concerns hopefully will push the Town to use the most protective health standards to make smart decisions about trying to come up with something that’s really going to be a long-term, sustainable solution and not a temporary fix that’s just covering it up, because that has not worked well at other sites.” Torrey added.

Terry Cohen contributed to this article.

A former TLR correspondent from Durham, Kylie Marsh returns to writing for the paper, albeit from new digs in Charlotte. Her work has also appeared in QCity Metro. As a graduate of NYU, she writes about local issues of class, race and inequality. When not freelancing, Kylie is organizing for the rights of workers, women and the homeless in Charlotte.

Terry E. Cohen is the editor of The Local Reporter. She also writes articles for a global media firm on topics related to Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) in business and industry.

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2 Comments on "Competing Narratives About Coal Ash Surround 828 MLK Jr. Blvd.’s Future"

  1. Have we done a review of the Chapel Hill Police Department’s exposure to the coal ash. They have been working on this coal ash pile for the past 30 years or so.

  2. Been to Lake Norman NC? The used coal ash for decades to build communities. So many people (young adults) and animals have cancers. Its a dirty secret. NOW – Chapel Hill wants to repeat this tragedy. Check it all out. It is NOT just these 2 cancers either. ITS SO MUCH CANCERS and illnesses.

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