By Michelle Cassell
The Town of Chapel Hill may have a new resource to dispose of its nemesis: coal ash. On October 18, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine if Chapel Hill’s coal ash dump at 838 Martin Luther King Blvd. could be cleaned up under the national Superfund program.
However, this petition was a complete surprise to Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, according to her aide Jeanne Brown, who told TLR on October 31, “The Mayor became aware of the petition because of your call. She cannot comment on the merits at this time.”
At the Town Council meeting on March 8, 2023, they authorized staff to develop a concept plan for the site and fund any current costs with general funds. The discovery of the coal ash on the property was made in 2013 and the town has been working to address the mix of coal ash and debris on this site (location of the Chapel Hill Police Department). The evaluation of the site by the state is currently in process.
“If the EPA grants this petition, it would disrupt Chapel Hill’s plan to leave most of the ash dump in place under the Brownfields program, because the EPA would take over and dictate what cleanup would be required,” said Perrin de Jong, Southeast Staff Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity. “That would disrupt North Carolina’s authority under the Brownfields program.”
A “brownfields site” is 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 redeveloping 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 use.
What is a Superfund?
The Superfund program was established by the U.S. Congress in 1980, administered by the EPA. It aims to clean up and remedy abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites in the United States, especially those threatening public health and the environment.
The EPA can use the Superfund program to address sites where coal ash has been dumped, particularly if it poses a risk to human health and the environment. In North Carolina, the EPA has designated several sites as Superfund sites due to coal ash contamination, including the Allen Steam Station and the Roxboro Steam Electric Plant.
The purpose of the petition by the Center for Biological Diversity is to get the EPA’s help in conducting the full removal and cleanup of the coal ash dump. It would also stop the Town of Chapel Hill from proceeding with its Brownfields project.
Southeast Staff Attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity Perrin de Jong told TLR, “EPA has one year to complete its investigation, make a decision, and inform us of their decision about whether to add this site to the National Priorities List for Superfund.
“As to how it would work, there are many possibilities and models for EPA to use. Ultimately, the agency would lead the decision-making process for the appropriate disposal and remediation methods and how they would be achieved/financed/led. There are lots of variables in what course the agency could choose.”
TLR contacted Region 4 of the EPA for comment, but they have not yet responded to our request.
The contaminated property has been controversial ever since the town proposed razing the Chapel Hill Police Station on the 10-acre Bolin Creek Parkway site and building a new facility there.
“The scariest thing for people and wildlife is that the town is working toward demolishing the police department building and building a new facility there without fully removing the toxic coal ash and cleaning up the site,” said de Jong.
Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal at power plants and can contain hazardous substances such as arsenic, lead and mercury. The coal ash in Chapel Hill comes from the University-Chapel Hill’s still coal-burning plant.
Until federal regulations required the UNC coal-fired power plant to install pollution controls, the ash carpeted the town, its residents – and its residents’ lungs – in invisible particles. In addition, hundreds of thousands of tons of leftover fly ash was dumped, along with other trash, at what is now 828 Martin Luther King Blvd., the home of the Chapel Hill Police Department, said de Jong.
Center for Biological Diversity’s claims
According to the Oct. 17 Center for Biological Diversity’s press release, “approximately 60,000 cubic yards – roughly the equivalent of 46 Olympic-sized swimming pools was dumped into a large pit at 828 Martin Luther King Blvd.”
Coal ash has not been dumped there since before the CHPD and the Bolin Creek Greenway was built in 1982, but the contamination remains. This fact is not disputed by the Town of Chapel Hill.
In September 2022, Avner Vengosh, a professor of environmental science at Duke University, released a report analyzing the chemical composition of the ash buried at 828 Martin Luther King Blvd. His report found that the formerly buried coal ash had reached the property’s surface. Soil, water, and sediment tests conducted on the property and in Bolin Creek indicate that the surrounding environment has been contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive material.
These laboratory tests have revealed elevated levels of heavy metals, such as arsenic, mercury and hexavalent chromium, and radioactive material such as radium, in the environment around the ash dump. According to the press release by the Center for Biological Diversity on Oct. 17, all these pollutants are coal ash constituents.
The Town of Chapel Hill’s experts differ from the Center for Biological Diversity’s scientists in levels and how much remediation is needed.
Chapel Hill’s Brownfields plan
Chapel Hill’s proposal, based on the recommendations of Hart and Hickman proposes removing all of the surface and immediately below the surface and covering it with soil or concrete. They say the coal ash that is deeper such as 10 to 15 feet below the ground will not impose a health risk.
In addition they report that temporary measures put in place in 2013 have lowered the risk. They recommend building a retaining wall to prevent remaining coal ash from escaping on the southern end of the site. They want to impose further restrictions on use of ground development and prohibit digging below a certain depth.
Their findings also report that completely removing all the coal ash would result in short-term environmental impacts involving some 5,000 truck trips to the nearest landfill 40 miles away.
In 2019, Chapel Hill applied to obtain liability coverage for the redevelopment of 828 MLK through the NC DEQ’s Brownfields Program. The site was accepted into the program and the town is currently working with the program to obtain liability coverage for its plan to redevelop 828 MLK without full removal of the site’s coal ash, according to de Jong.
“Ensuring the health, safety and welfare of nearby neighbors, the creek and our entire community are a high priority for the Town. To that end we have been working closely with two sets of experts to come up with a plan…. That work has been fully documented on the Town’s website here,” wrote Brown.
When the property is deemed safe, the town proposes to build a municipal complex on it.
“This contaminated property is surrounded in every direction by housing, businesses and wildlife habitat and it needs to be cleaned up,” said de Jong. “I’m aware of the risks to neighbors because I grew up as a small child in one of the surrounding apartment buildings, playing in the yard in Bolin Creek just downstream from the ash dump.”
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.