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The Daily Tar Heel

Experts explore coal ash hazard in Orange County's landfill

The same muck that contaminated the Dan River last month used to cover Orange County’s landfill for more than 15 years.

Tens of thousands of tons of coal ash slurry were dumped into the Dan River when a Duke Energy pond leaked Feb. 2. The spill was the third largest in U.S. history, according to National Geographic. Public outcry and media scrutiny prompted a felony investigation into the relationship between Duke Energy and officials at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Residents of the Historic Rogers Road neighborhood, which housed the county’s landfill for more than 40 years, are concerned that coal ash from the Orange County Landfill contaminated their air and water.

Coal ash is the waste that remains after coal is burned, and many believe it is dangerous to human health, though the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to decide if it should be classified as hazardous.

“We are concerned because coal ash has a lot of heavy metals in it – mercury, arsenic, lead,” said the Rev. Robert Campbell, president of the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.

Each of these metals is classified as toxic by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, meaning they can negatively affect people’s health if found in large enough amounts. Some are even carcinogens.

Gayle Wilson, solid waste management director for the county, said a coal ash slurry was used to cover the Orange County Landfill from 1997 until it closed in June. Municipal waste landfills must be covered at the end of each day, Wilson said.

Molly Diggins, state director of the North Carolina chapter of the grassroots environmental organization the Sierra Club, said states have been looking to the EPA to provide guidance on whether or not coal ash is a hazardous waste. The EPA is under court order to make a decision by mid-December.

“In North Carolina there is less guidance for coal ash than household waste,” Diggins said. “Because the EPA hasn’t made a determination it’s sort of just in limbo.”

Wilson said the spray-on slurry was safe, and Diggins pointed out that many environmental groups prefer coal ash be disposed of at landfills than wet ponds, which are typically unlined and very close to water supplies.

But Steve Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, has done research in the Rogers Road community and he isn’t sure that was the best option.

“Maybe it would be safe when applied,” Wing said. “But if material is dry it could blow off-site.”

Campbell said he believes this is exactly what happened.

“It dries up during the hot months and gets into the air and vegetation. Animals eat it,” Campbell said. “We have already done the research that shows our water and air are polluted.”

The Rogers Road community agreed to house the county’s landfill in 1972 on the conditions that the landfill would only be there for 10 years and that they would later receive a community center and hookups to water and sewer. Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County are still discussing how to fulfill these promises.

Research by the UNC Department of Epidemiology in 2011 said air pollutants from the landfill do negatively impact the health of its neighbors in the Rogers Road community. Health effects included mucosal irritation and upper respiratory symptoms.

A 2010 study by the Orange County Health Department in conjunction with UNC and the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association revealed nine of 11 wells tested in the community did not meet EPA water quality standards. Ten of the wells had water cloudier than standards set for public water utilities; one had excess lead.

“All liners will eventually leak,” Wing said. “That’s where there is potential for groundwater contamination.”

Philip Barner, director of energy services at UNC, said ash from the University-operated power plant was hauled to the Orange County Landfill until the early 1990s. According to a case study by the International District Energy Association, the UNC-Chapel Hill Cogeneration Facility burns coal and natural gas to generate steam for the campus and hospital, and to provide a portion of the electricity needed on campus.

“We used to receive some ash from the University power plant until 1993 or 1994,” Wilson said. “It’s been a long, long time.”

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