Council Members Coalesce Around MOU During Work Session on Brownfield Site 


By James Kiefer

The Chapel Hill Town Council heard more information regarding the next steps for redeveloping a coal ash site during a single-issue work session Wednesday evening. Although the body did not vote on the matter, several council members signaled readiness to pursue initial conversations about containing the contaminated area in preparation for potential development — including residential housing.

The parcel under discussion is the 10-acre lot at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which the Town says was used as a coal ash fill site for UNC in the 1960s. It was later bought by the Town without awareness of the presence of the coal ash and a police headquarters was built on the site. The Town government learned of the coal ash contamination in 2013 after commissioning an engineering report in preparation for selling the land.

The parcel is now considered a brownfields site; the soil is contaminated and must be remediated to federal and state standards before it can be sold for construction. Other brownfields sites in town include the land under the mixed-use building at 140 West Franklin St., which went through extensive remediation because a gas station had been there, and the Wegmans property on Fordham Boulevard that was previously the site of a car dealership.   

To frame the parameters of coal ash containment and remediation, the council is considering drafting a memorandum of understanding (MOU). Mayor Pam Hemminger kicked off the meeting by reminding the council of three things: An MOU is non-binding for all parties involved; an MOU enables the Town to better engage with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) brownfields program; the MOU process does not result in a development approval or rezoning and remains subject to Town planning processes.   

Keith Johnson, a Raleigh-based attorney with Poyner Spruill who has experience in brownfields redevelopment, informed the council that its best option appears to be a cap and contain approach. He recommended removing some coal ash for off-site disposal, adding several feet of clean soil to the area and adding impervious surfaces, building a retaining wall and restricting the use of groundwater on site.

“This site absolutely can be redeveloped and be made safe for use,” he said, adding it is not a novel approach and is a common strategy for dealing with coal ash.

A cap and contain approach will address all human exposure to coal ash and debris, which is required by law under the brownfields agreement, Johnson said.

Johnson stated removal of all of the coal ash was impractical. The financial cost and risk of exposure during excavation alone make removal a huge risk. He also cited a Town study that estimated 5,000 truck trips would be necessary to completely remove the coal ash.

To further complicate matters, the nearest designated holding site cannot hold the current amount of coal ash on the Chapel Hill site, Johnson added and removal is projected to cost $13 to $16 million. In comparison, a cap and contain solution costs around $5 million at the high end.

Johnson further stated the brownfields program is not a “shortcut” for redevelopment and said that if the Town wanted to redevelop the area outside of the program, he’d still advise a cap and contain strategy.

After the presentation, council member Amy Ryan asked Johnson if he felt the council had studied the issue enough to begin drafting a non-binding MOU agreement.

“If anything, you could be accused of overstudying it, but you’ve been cautious,” he said.

Councilmember Jessica Anderson later asked Johnson to clarify what he meant by “overstudying.” He explained that it is typical for a town to have a redevelopment plan in place before dealing with a brownfield site, instead of asking for a risk assessment first.

Adam Searing was the main voice of concern throughout the meeting, making it clear that he wanted to limit potential future development options for the site.

“I think this MOU is moving us toward building residential housing on a coal ash site which is a mistake,” he said, pointing out that the experts advising the Town do not live in Chapel Hill and do not have any plans to relocate to housing built on a coal ash site.

“If I am not willing to [live on brownfield site], then I don’t think we should be willing to ask other residents to do that.”

Michael Parker responded that staff reports say exposure will be non-existent if they follow the proper recommendations, so some residents may consider living on the parcel if housing is built there.

Councilperson Tai Huynh added that he recently lived in rented housing that was subject to mold and flooding. He also said that an MOU does not commit the town to a certain development plan, but is just the next step in exploring how to deal with the contaminated site.

“I think it’s very important for us to acknowledge… there are families in our community who live in much worse conditions today because they have no other options,” he said. “So I will always be supportive of building quality, safe housing options for those folks in our town.

Hemminger ended the meeting and reminded council members that the MOU would be brought up before council as a voting action at a later meeting; no Chapel Hill residents signed up for public comment.

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