Viewpoints: We’re Still Waiting on Chapel Hill Coal Ash Answers

By: Amanda Strawderman, Op-Ed for
September 9, 2022

May 16, 2022. That was the date the Town of Chapel Hill and NC Dept of Environmental Quality held a virtual meeting to inform the public of the process of the urgent yet controversial redevelopment of the town’s property at 828 MLK Blvd. Urgent, first and foremost, because the site contains an estimated 60,000 cubic yards of coal ash made up of carcinogenic compounds and heavy metals, exposure to which is known to be harmful to human health. And even after coal ash was discovered and the Town made initial cleanup efforts, sections of this site have continued to be exposed to rain and wind, and is of concern to the community. Controversial, because the Town has proposed to build residential housing and municipal buildings atop the site without first removing all of the coal ash. Given the risks for more exposure during and after the completion of this project, people naturally have questions about how they will be protected.

It’s important to note that this was not the first meeting on the topic. Members of the public have been showing up for Chapel Hill Town Council meetings and reaching out with emails and phone calls for months. After being chided by some council members for speaking out without being fully informed, folks wanted to do just that, to become better informed and give the Town the opportunity to demonstrate that they have public health and safety considerations at the forefront of this project. And so on May 16, despite allotting only 30 minutes for questions, 73 members of the public – neighbors, local and statewide coalitions of coal ash-impacted community members, health experts, clean air and water advocates – attended the meeting to voice their concerns and ask for answers. Some questions were addressed during the meeting while others would require research and consultation, but all were promised to be given written responses that would soon be posted on the Town of Chapel Hill’s website.

Seventy days. That’s how long we waited for the Town and DEQ to post those responses (Note that members of the public are expected to provide comments within 30 days after notice of a draft permit for polluting facilities). And even when these replies were posted, less than half the questions were answered and many were essentially evaded, overgeneralized, or pushed to future decisions in later stages of the project. To illustrate, community members have long been asking about the potential removal methods for the coal ash at the site, and when DEQ responded, they simply stated “decisions about removal should be directed to the Town of Chapel Hill representatives.” Yet the Town had insisted they were bringing in DEQ for their expertise. When asked if DEQ’s brownfield program had previous experience with ‘mitigated coal ash on proposed housing sites’ they discussed projects at other types of sites with elevated metals, avoiding the true answer that the program has NEVER put a residential development on top of a former coal ash site. Discourse that has the public running in circles doesn’t exactly build confidence that any number of potentially negative consequences from this project have been considered.

Far from trying to obstruct progress, we just want to understand the plan. Aside from the redevelopment proposal that has been put forth, what other types of clean-up and remediation options has the Town even considered or been given estimates? How would potential exposure and health risks differ between users and activities at the redeveloped site (residents/employees or long-term vs visitors or short-term)? Have they consulted the NC Department of Health and Human Services or other health researchers about potential public health impacts from these proposals? How will they ensure workers and community members will be protected during construction? How will the waste be handled, transported, and stored so that coal ash dust doesn’t escape into the air we breathe or the water we drink? How long will they monitor the local environment after the project is completed? And whichever plan they choose, how will they ensure negative impacts are not disproportionately borne by low-income or BIPOC community members? These are just some of the valid concerns that haven’t been addressed.

Considering that this is only one of who knows how many undiscovered coal ash sites across the state, what is decided now doesn’t only affect the residents of Chapel Hill, the next one could be in any one of our neighborhoods. It is in everyone’s best interest to see that justice is done for our fellow Carolinians in this matter. Decide for yourself and follow the issue on the Chapel Hill website or Watch the recording of the meeting, read their responses, and participate in the upcoming meetings to ask your own questions. This project is still at the early stages, but if we don’t make sure the Town is thinking things through, then decisions will be made and they might just claim it’s too late, that too much effort has already gone into this plan, too much money has been invested, or that we should have said something sooner.

It’s now September and the next Chapel Hill Town Council meeting is on the 14th. To the council and DEQ, we HAVE spoken, we’re still here, and we’re waiting for answers.

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