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Does the coal ash under the Chapel Hill Police station pose a public health risk?

coal ash disposal site
The coal ash disposal site remediation project is located at 828 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, pictured here on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018.

During an evaluation of its properties in 2013, the Town of Chapel Hill uncovered an unpleasant surprise: an estimated 60,000 cubic yards of coal ash buried beneath the police station.

Since then, the Town has held several meetings and plans to hold up to four more, having also contracted out several environmental groups to determine the coal ash’s impact.

The coal ash acts as structural fill. Workers removed soil from the site in the 1950s and 60s, and the coal ash was later added to replace the lost soil. State law permits coal ash to be used as structural fill, but developers must notify the N.C. Division of Waste Management — a policy not in place when the coal ash was added.

The problems don’t end there. According to the report by Hart & Hickman, an environmental consulting group commissioned by the Town, the fill is 20 feet thick in some places, far over the state’s required one foot. State law also mandates that fill is covered by at least 18 inches of soil. In some places at the police station, ash is exposed.

Coal ash has eroded down the steep embankment near the police station, which faces the Bolin Creek Trail and Bolin Creek. The trail is separated from the ash by a fence.

The report shows toxins at high levels, particularly manganese concentrations 172 times higher than the state standard. Because there are no drinking wells nearby, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality determined these toxins pose little risk to humans.

Currently, the Town is pursuing two main avenues for cleanup: grants from the DEQ’s Brownfields Program or Inactive Hazardous Sites Program. A Brownfields site is an underutilized site with environmental contamination that prevents future development.

Town correspondence with DEQ employees indicates a preference for the Brownfields program, but the Town withheld official support for any particular program.

“A top choice has not been selected by the Town Council,” said John Richardson,  the Town of Chapel Hill's planning manager for sustainability. “The staff was charged with exploring the Brownfields option and is asking N.C. DEQ for an official determination of the Town’s eligibility for the Brownfields program for this site.”

Though the Town continues to ask for further cleanup suggestions, environmental groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center and Friends of Bolin Creek have criticized the Town’s perceived fixation on the Brownfields Program.

“They just need to do some more investigation,” SELC Associate Attorney Megan Kimball said. “Another thing they need to look into is all the different remedial options. Right now they've been very focused on the Brownfields program, and they haven't looked into the other options, they haven't done full cost-benefit analysis."

Though it has looked at other remediation options, the Town has worked with public commenters to suggest alternatives to the Brownfields Program.

Richardson said the Brownfields Program provides a legal cover for the Town by lowering the potential for a lawsuit, potentially making it more attractive as a cleanup method.

Further criticism stems from the environmental impact studies themselves. Now almost two years old, some worry about the data’s accuracy and relevance. According to the report, the groundwater around the police station moves at a rate of 20 feet per year toward Bolin Creek. At this pace, Kimball said, the results may be different now.

The scope of the studies is another item of concern.

“The sampling was pretty limited,” Kimball said. “They sampled the creek, but it was a one and done kind of sampling event. They've got to do more samples of the stream, they have to do more samples of the soil, more samples of the groundwater.”

Richardson said the Town will seek a risk assessor and toxicologist to provide further information about the site, but the Town is moving forward to determine Brownfields eligibility without this data.

The Town lacks a timeline for the cleanup, Richardson said. Total time will vary, depending on the cleanup method that the Town ultimately chooses. 

“I think that the Town really wants to do the right thing,” Kimball said. “I do think that they're trying to handle it well, and they just need to do a little bit more to get the information they need to make a good decision.”


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