By: Chad Knuth, Indy Week
October 26, 2022
Managing coal ash in North Carolina has long been a sordid issue.
Last month in response to the Town of Chapel Hill’s proposal to build on top of 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 nation’s top coal ash scientists in a public forum in an effort to educate citizens on the dangers attributed to coal ash.
“Coal ash is the new asbestos,” said Edward Marshall, a professor in Duke’s school of engineering who spearheaded the forum.
The property at the center of the debate runs along the Bolin Creek Parkway at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, one mile north of the heavily trafficked Franklin Street. It has been the sole home to the Chapel Hill Police Department since the 1980s, but it is also the site of a coal ash infill that dates from the 1960s and ’70s.
When plans for reconstruction of the current police station were initially submitted in 2013, the Town of Chapel Hill discovered the buried coal ash deposit at the site, and officials have since been looking to remediate the property.
Current plans that the town has released outline the construction of a roughly 80,000-square-foot new municipal services center, which is set to include a reconstructed police station, alongside the addition of private development and a total of 225 to 275 multifamily residential rental units, all of which would be built directly over the existing 60,000-ton coal ash deposit.
“The town [of Chapel Hill] has failed to make a compelling, science-based case for building on top of 60,000 tons of coal ash,” Marshall said at the meeting. “All we want the town to do is remove the coal ash before building anything. It is the town council and mayor’s moral and public health responsibility to keep our citizens safe—the proposed plan does not do that.”
Chapel Hill mayor Pam Hemminger, however, says the town understands the dangers attributed to coal ash and further assures that current plans to not remove the coal ash have been well researched.
”We can all agree that there are concerns surrounding the coal ash,” she says. “We’ve explored digging [the coal ash] out, but that was going to cause more environmental concerns in many ways, causing fly ash and just all of the hazards associated in digging it up and carting it out with trucks. It would ultimately endanger the community more [to remove it].”
Hemminger has since stated that, due to costs, plans for any residential units to be built on the site have been pushed into later project phases, while plans for the municipal center and reconstructed police station remain under way.
For Marshall and others attending the forum, the removal of residential units from development plans is not nearly enough. They asked why the town seemed to be dodging the glaring issue at hand.
Hemminger declined to attend last month’s forum, as did all but one member of the town council, Adam Searing. Searing was the only town council member to vote against the proposed redevelopment project.
“It’s wonderful that the community is asking the questions they are,” says Hemminger, “but we’ve employed top-notch scientists and we’ve met with the [NC Department of Environmental Quality], and this group of citizens [who attended the forum] had also met with the DEQ, and they were told the same thing we were: that capping it and controlling it where it was is the best way forward.”
Officials from NC DEQ also declined to attend last month’s forum.
“This has been going on for a long time now,” Hemminger continues. “[The town has] been very forthcoming and up-front about everything. I learned about this when I came in as mayor seven years ago, and we’ve been posting our progress, and continually testing, and doing constant monitoring of the groundwater and the creek. We’re happy to say the creek has shown no sign of ever having coal ash in it.”
Earlier last month, the town issued a memo discussing the proposed project’s current status.
“Over the summer, we have continued to work with the NC DEQ through the EPA’s Brownfields Program,” the memo states. “We have, also, continued to work with Hart & Hickman, our environmental consultants, who are in the process of conducting on-going monitoring and additional testing of on the site at NC DEQ’s request as a standard procedure for the Brownfields Program.”
The 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 Brownfields properties in the United States.
According to NC DEQ, as documented during a public meeting Q&A back in May, the Brownfields Program “is still reviewing assessment data collected at this site and some additional assessment is anticipated to occur …. The primary identified contaminants at the Chapel Hill Police Property are elevated metals from the coal ash.”
The presence of the elevated metals was a focal point at last month’s forum. The metals include antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, radium, radon, thallium, thorium, and uranium, all of which are known to cause serious health effects due to exposure.
Scientists at the forum took turns exchanging collected research on the effects of coal ash exposure with grave 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 what the EPA allows.
Health risks from exposure to metals found in coal ash include damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart, as well as nervous system damage and even lung, prostate, and urinary tract cancers, to name only a few.
“Overall, studies show higher all-cause mortality; rates of premature deaths and infant mortality; higher risk of cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases; lung cancer; and higher prevalence of low birth weight in newborns reported in association with air pollutants related to coal-burning power plants,” wrote Julia Kravchenko, an associate professor of surgery at Duke School of Medicine, in a research paper published in 2018.
Kravchenko’s research shows that, unfortunately, studies with direct measurements of exposure and health status in the communities adjacent to landfills or coal ash impoundments in the United States are currently not available.
In addition, no studies with direct measurements of individual or group/community exposures that can provide a scientific rationale for policy changes in the United States are currently available.
Vengosh and Kravchenko both attended the forum, along with Susan Wind, a former resident of Mooresville, who joined in an effort to share her daughter’s story.
Wind’s daughter, Taylor, who now suffers from thyroid cancer, was one of at least 25 children and teens in the Lake Norman area who have been suspected to have contracted cancers related to the improper disposal of coal ash in their community.
The state’s Central Cancer Registry statistics showed that for the past 26 years Iredell County has reported higher incidences of thyroid cancer than the state average, in some cases three times greater. In May 2018, state and county health officials designated two zip codes near Lake Norman as suspected cancer clusters, one of them being 28117, where the Wind family had resided.
Lake Norman High School, where Wind’s daughter was in attendance at the time of her diagnosis, was discovered to have been built alongside a 42,000-ton coal ash deposit, a site not dissimilar to that at 828 MLK Jr. Boulevard.
According to Wind, a number of the children and teens in the Lake Norman area who had contracted cancers similar to her daughter’s have since passed away from complications.
Pamela Schultz, former chair 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 due to exposure to coal ash,” she said. “We need more medical data. The risks are greater than what we have believed.”
As the town starts its long journey on the road of remediation, Hemminger ensures that the Town of Chapel Hill has been committed to redeveloping the site safely from the start.
“We’re all learning how to live with it,” Hemminger says. “We’re learning as much as we possibly can.”