Chapel Hill Assesses Redevelopment of Site Above Coal Ash Pit Despite Warnings

Chapel Hill Assesses Redevelopment of Site Above Coal Ash Pit Despite Warnings

Coal ash management in North Carolina has long been a sordid subject.

Last month, in response to the Town of Chapel Hill’s proposal to build on an existing 60,000-ton coal ash deposit without removing the coal ash, a group of residents known as Safe Housing for Chapel Hill hosted three of the best coal ash scientists in the country. in a public forum in an effort to educate citizens about the dangers attributed to coal ash.

“Coal ash is the new asbestos,” said Edward Marshall, a professor at Duke’s engineering school who spearheaded the forum.

The property at the center of the debate straddles Bolin Creek Parkway at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a mile north of heavily traveled Franklin Street. It has been the only home of the Chapel Hill Police Department since the 1980s, but it is also the site of a coal ash landfill dating to the 1960s and 1970s.

When plans for the rebuilding of the current police station were initially laid out in 2013, the city of Chapel Hill discovered the buried coal ash deposit on the site, and officials have been looking to remediate the property ever since.

Current plans the city has released outline the construction of a new approximately 80,000-square-foot municipal services center, which will include a reconstructed police station, along with the addition of private development and a total of 225 to 275 multi-family residential units. for rent. , all of which would be built directly on top of the existing 60,000-ton coal ash deposit.

“The city [of Chapel Hill] has failed to make a compelling, science-based case for building on 60,000 tons of coal ash,” Marshall told the meeting. “All we want the city to do is remove coal ash before building anything. It is the moral and public health responsibility of the city council and the mayor to keep our citizens safe; the proposed plan does not do that.”

However, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger says the city understands the dangers attributed to coal ash, and says current plans to No remove coal ash have been well researched.

“We can all agree that there are concerns around coal ash,” she says. “We have explored the excavation [the coal ash] outside, but that was going to cause more environmental concerns in many ways, causing fly ash and all the hazards associated with digging it up and trucking it away. Ultimately, it would endanger the community more [to remove it].”

Hemminger has since stated that, due to cost, plans to build residential units on the site have been moved to later phases of the project, while plans for the rebuilt municipal center and police station remain in the works. .

For Marshall and other forum attendees, removing residential units from development plans is not enough. They asked why the city seemed to be avoiding the obvious problem at hand.

Hemminger refused to attend last month’s forum, as did all but one city council member, Adam Searing. Searing was the only councilmember to vote against the proposed redevelopment project.

“It’s wonderful that the community asks the questions that it does,” says Hemminger, “but we’ve hired top-notch scientists and met with the [NC Department of Environmental Quality]and this group of citizens [who attended the forum] He had also met with the DEQ, and they were told the same thing as us: that limiting it and controlling it where it was is the best way forward.”

NC DEQ officials also declined to attend last month’s forum.

“This has been going on for a long time,” Hemminger continues. “[The town has] been very communicative and direct about everything. I found out about this when I took office as mayor seven years ago, and we have been posting our progress, continuously testing and constantly monitoring the groundwater and creek. We are pleased to say that the creek has shown no signs of having coal ash.”

Early last month, the city issued a memorandum on the current status of the proposed project.

“During the summer, we continue to work with NC DEQ through EPA’s Brownfields Program,” the memo says. “We have also continued to work with Hart & Hickman, our environmental consultants, who are in the process of conducting ongoing monitoring and additional on-site testing at the request of NC DEQ as standard procedure for the Brownfields Program.”

EPA’s Brownfields Program provides grants and technical assistance to communities, states, tribes, and others to assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse contaminated properties. It is estimated that there are more than 450,000 Brownfield properties in the United States.

According to NC DEQ, as documented during a public question-and-answer meeting in May, the Brownfields Program “is still reviewing the evaluation data collected at this site and it is anticipated that some additional evaluation will be conducted…. The primary contaminants identified on the Chapel Hill police property are elevated metals from coal ash.”

The presence of high metals was a focal point at last month’s forum. Metals include antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, radium, radon, thallium, thorium, and uranium, all of which are known to cause serious health effects from exposure.

Scientists at the forum took turns exchanging collected research on the effects of coal ash exposure with great concern.

Avner Vengosh, a professor of environmental quality at Duke, reported that the composition of soil samples taken at 828 MLK Jr. Boulevard revealed a total of 19 toxic metals, including levels of arsenic, lead, and radium that were three to four times higher. to The EPA allows it.

Health risks from exposure to metals found in coal ash include damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart, as well as damage to the nervous system, and even lung, prostate, and urinary tract cancer, to name a few. only some.

“Overall, studies show higher all-cause mortality; premature death and infant mortality rates; increased risk of chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases; lung cancer; and a higher prevalence of low birth weight in newborns in relation to air pollutants related to coal-burning power plants,” Julia Kravchenko, an associate professor of surgery at Duke School of Medicine, wrote in an article in research published in 2018.

Kravchenko’s research shows that studies with direct measurements of exposure and health status in communities adjacent to coal ash landfills or impoundments in the United States are unfortunately not currently available.

In addition, there are currently no studies available with direct measurements of individual or group/community exposures that could provide scientific justification for policy changes in the United States.

Vengosh and Kravchenko attended the forum, along with Susan Wind, a former Mooresville resident, who joined in an effort to share her daughter’s story.

Wind’s daughter, Taylor, who is now suffering from thyroid cancer, was one of at least 25 children and teens in the Lake Norman area suspected of having cancers related to improper coal ash disposal in her community.

Statistics from the state’s Central Cancer Registry showed that over the past 26 years, Iredell County has reported higher incidences of thyroid cancer than the state average, in some cases three times higher. In May 2018, county and state health officials designated two ZIP codes near Lake Norman as suspected cancer clusters, one of which was 28117, where the Wind family had resided.

Lake Norman High School, where Wind’s daughter was attending at the time of her diagnosis, was found to have been built next to a 42,000-ton coal ash dump, a site not unlike 828 MLK Jr. Boulevard.

According to Wind, several of the children and teens in the Lake Norman area who had developed cancers similar to her daughter’s have died of complications.

Pamela Schultz, former president of the Chapel Hill Stormwater Advisory Board, spoke after Wind.

“Our bodies are not designed to be exposed to these chemicals, but the conversation is that there are no short-term effects from coal ash exposure,” he said. “We need more medical data. The risks are greater than we had believed.”

As the city begins its long journey down the road to remediation, Hemminger says the City of Chapel Hill has been committed to rebuilding the site safely from the ground up.

“We’re all learning to live with it,” says Hemminger. “We are learning as much as we can.”

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