Town Residents Raise Concerns Over Future of Coal Ash Deposit  


James Kiefer


The Local Reporter

Disclosure: Speaker Adam Searing is a financial contributor to TLR.  

Climate activists, concerned residents and an elected official gathered virtually Wednesday evening for an information session regarding the potential development of a parcel within Chapel Hill that contains coal ash. 

The focus of the session is a parcel at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, which was used as a coal ash fill site by UNC in the 1960s. Earlier this year, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted 8-1 to approve a memorandum of understanding (MOU). The action allows staff to begin initial discussions for the redevelopment of the site, possibly opening the door for residential housing. 

Voicing concerns 

Nick Torrey, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, opened the meeting by reminding attendees that the parcel’s future has not been set in stone. 

“It can change, we hope it will change, but it’s not changing right now,” he stated. 

Torrey went on to explain that covering up coal ash, a method elected officials have signaled as their preferred option for remediation at the site, isn’t foolproof. He pointed to two instances in Mooresville as evidence.State officials announced in 2020 that coal ash had been released from a sinkhole into a stream following heavy rains.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said the toxic waste was used as structural fill at the site. In 2018, it was found a site containing 40,000 pounds of coal ash was exposed within 1,000 feet of Lake Norman High School, per a WSOC investigation.

The only member of town council present was Adam Searing. He cast the sole dissenting vote against the MOU and has routinely voiced reservations about allowing any type of residential dwelling on the parcel. 

Searing began by pledging to vote against any development at the site until the coal ash is fully removed. He also said if a full extraction is accomplished, he would support residential housing on the parcel. 

“As a town, what our first responsibility should be is the health of our residents and our families,” he said. 

One person who knows the toll coal ash can take on someone’s health is Caroline Armijo. Hailing from Stokes County, she talked about seeing people suffer from ailments ranging from miscarriages, asthma and cancer from prolonged exposure to the coal ash waste. 

“It’s now really about when we’re going to see the ash,” she said. “It’s just about being in that close proximity.” 

She urged Chapel Hill’s elected officials to explore quotes from other services to gauge the cost of better mitigating the coal ash. The town has previously said it would cost upwards of $10 million to completely remove all waste deposited at the parcel. 

One point that Torrey clarified is that the Southern Environmental Law Center is not endorsing a full-fledged removal of all the coal ash present at the site.  

“Here, based on the studies that have been done, there is more of a middle ground on what the Town is proposing now… and a full excavation,” he said. 

The remedy Torrey proposed is threefold — revisiting the idea of building commercial spaces instead of residential ones, removing a suitable amount of coal ash where it poses a significant risk to site occupants and conducting soil and water sample monitoring in perpetuity. 

Searing remarked that the political jockeying among the council has stymied talk of other remediation measures. He added, for some, hearing the message that pouring concrete on the site to contain contamination was enough of a solution. 

“Right now, my fellow council members feel that the town has a plan and has paid several hundred thousand dollars of your tax money that has given us the answer that we’re looking for,” he said. 

The last speaker of the session was Jason Torian, a community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. He noted that there have been town employees working on the site for 40 years, but no follow-up studies have been done regarding their health or risk of exposure. 

One question raised by attendees was UNC’s role in helping solve the problem since it used the site as a landfill for years. Torrey stated there is no legal hook the Town of Chapel Hill could use to require action by the university. Searing added that conversations with UNC and the council have shown the school hasn’t shown substantial interest in clearing that specific site. 

Another question brought up is the role of federal regulators like the Environmental Protection Agency. Torrey said that due to the small size of the parcel, EPA involvement doesn’t seem likely. Key players in this instance are the Chapel Hill Town Council and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, he stated. 

How did we get here? 

The parcel in question area was later acquired by the Town of Chapel Hill in the 1980s, which built a police headquarters on the site unaware that coal ash was present. In 2013, town government learned of the coal ash contamination after commissioning an engineering report in preparation for selling the land.

In March, Chapel Hill Town Council approved the MOU giving the town manager the power to pursue initial discussions of remediation efforts. A list of preferred projects includes constructing an 80,000 square-foot municipal services center and approximately 200 multifamily residential rental units. 

The MOU is non-binding and does not sidestep any town procedures for development agreements. 

The decision allows Town Manager Maurice Jones to explore a remediation solution with Belmont-Sayre — a developer with previous experience dealing with brownfield sites.

In order to mitigate the impact of coal ash, the site will be subject to guidelines set by the N.C. Brownfields Program. A brownfields site is defined by the state as, “any real property that is abandoned, idled or underused where environmental contamination, or perceived environmental contamination, hinders redevelopment.” 

That program adds some of the following limitations — deed restrictions on permitted land use, a “no soil disturbance” clause — barring an emergency — unless permission is granted by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the land will be subject to annual inspections and reports regarding soil quality.

According to a DEQ database,15 sites in Orange County have applied for a Brownfields Agreement with the state — nine are in Chapel Hill. Examples include the Wegmans grocery store on Fordham Boulevard, the former site of the Crown Honda dealership and University Place Mall. 

What has the Town done and what does it plan to do? 

In 2020, the town removed around 1,000 tons of coal ash along the Bolin Creek trail in response to advice from town staff and a 2019 study performed by environmental consultant firm Hart & Hickman. There are currently 60,000 cubic yards of coal ash remaining on the 4.5-acre parcel, according to N.C. Policywatch

Keith Johnson, a Raleigh-based attorney with Poyner Spruill who has experience in brownfield redevelopment, advised the council concerning remediation efforts for the parcel. He recommended a cap-and-contain approach to deal with the coal ash present on the site and estimated the cost of this method at around $5 million. 

The process would involve carting some coal ash away from the site, but the primary solution is 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.

Jonson advised this route due to the financial cost and risk of exposure to workers during excavation. The cost of complete removal is estimated to fall between $13 to $16 million and take three or more years to accomplish, according to a fact sheet drafted by Poyner Spruill and Hart & Hickman. 

It is estimated that 5,000 truck trips would be needed to completely remove the coal ash and relocate it to the nearest suitable landfill, which is 40 miles away. Adding another complication, Johnson previously stated it cannot hold the current amount of coal ash within the Chapel Hill parcel. 

The Chapel Hill Town website details the current level of risk to human health at the site, stating, “Today the coal ash is almost completely covered by the police station, parking lots and soil, with the exception of just a few small areas of uncovered ash remaining along the steep site embankment,” the website states.”The Town’s environmental consultants have concluded because the ash is almost completely buried and covered, it poses no unacceptable risks today to our police officers, to people visiting the police station or using the Bolin Creek Trail, or to the Bolin Creek ecosystem. The only risks identified were purely hypothetical if, in the future, a person repeatedly came in contact with the few remaining areas of exposed ash.” 

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