UPDATE 11/03 at 7:00 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect more specific details of coal ash contamination in and around the Bolin Creek area, as described by Megan Kimball.
In 2013, the Town of Chapel Hill discovered a coal ash site under the Chapel Hill Police Station, which some say could pose a threat to the drinking water of nearby residents.
The site contains 60,000 cubic yards of coal ash that was dumped in a 4.5 acre area in the 1960s and 1970s.
Although the Town is still conducting a risk assessment, several reports conducted by the Town through environmental consultants said heavy metals were detected in the groundwater and soil at the site. This could be a risk to the ecological health of the Bolin Creek natural area.
Coal ash contains a toxic mix of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and more pollutants that can damage human health by causing cancer, heart disease and other health issues.
Heavy metals in bodies of water also pose a threat to the environment. Toxic coal ash pollutants in water can kill aquatic life, cause deformities and increase concentrations of toxins, increasing the risk of ingestion of the pollutants by humans and animals.
The Town’s Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment will more completely characterize the risks and help determine the remediation plan. Since the discovery, several reports have been conducted and preliminary findings were released in May 2019. The findings suggested a slight increase in risk associated with the site compared to previous reports.
What did the reports find?
In all reports, coal ash was detected at the site and hazardous heavy metals such as manganese, arsenic, cobalt and chromium were detected in groundwater — water held below the surface — and soil samples. Water and sediment samples from Bolin Creek also showed elevated levels of coal ash contaminants, indicating potential groundwater contamination.
“In the 2017 report, one of the soil samplings showed that it contained arsenic that was more than five times the residential health base soil level,” Megan Kimball, an associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center said. “That’s pretty high. You don’t want that in the ground."
Despite the groundwater contamination findings, the 2017 report states coal ash is not in contact with groundwater. Kimball said this is inconsistent with records showing coal ash being in contact with groundwater. The SELC recommended the Town definitively determine whether the coal ash is in contact with groundwater, she said.
Kimball said groundwater flows into Bolin Creek, and sediment samples from the creek downstream showed coal ash contaminant levels were high. She said this is concerning because the water from Bolin Creek flows into Jordan Lake, a drinking water source for cities such as Cary, Apex and Morrisville.
“Whether or not the coal ash is in contact with the groundwater is really important because if the coal is sitting in the groundwater and the groundwater is constantly moving then it means that the water is going to get contaminated,” she said.
Some of the coal ash sits on a cliff above Bolin Creek, raising concerns about erosion of ash into the soil near the creek and the water itself. Environmental groups such as Friends of Bolin Creek have also been concerned about this.
“Our concern is that coal ash is extremely polluting and that all these years, stormwater has been running off the slope and taking coal ash and its pollutants into Bolin Creek,” Julie McClintock, president of Friends of Bolin Creek, said. “Bolin Creek feeds a big drinking water supply.”
Kimball said the Town has taken remedial actions by cleaning up the contaminated soil, putting clean soil down and catching and diverting water runoff, but still lacks a concrete remediation plan. She said the one of the major concerns is the coal ash under the department.
What are the remediation options? When will the Town decide?
The Town's risk assessment will help determine a remediation plan. Town of Chapel Hill Community Resilience Officer John Richardson said in an email that one option is capping the site, which would cover the exposed coal ash rather than remove it. But Kimball said capping might not prevent leaking of coal ash into the surrounding soil and groundwater.
Laura Leonard, public information officer for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, said in an email that the Town conducted a remedial investigation. The investigation showed the site is not an immediate risk to nearby people and animals, and therefore capping could be appropriate.
“There is minimal to no concern when proper precautions, such as an approved cap or barrier layer with diverting water from the area, are put into place,” Leonard said in the email.
Another option is removing the coal ash to a landfill that accepts the waste, Richardson said. McClintock said Friends of Bolin Creek has advocated for this option.
Richardson also said the Town is eligible to enter into an agreement with the state through the NCDEQ Brownfields Program. This program strives to reutilize abandoned, idled or underused property where environmental contamination prevents redevelopment.
Coal ash across North Carolina
There are 50 coal ash disposal sites in North Carolina and 14 coal plant facilities, one being the facility owned by UNC. Each year, North Carolina produces 5.5 million tons of coal ash, making the state ninth nationwide for coal ash generation.
In North Carolina, 31 sites have been identified by their potential for economic, environmental, health and infrastructure hazards.
“The utilities, including Duke Energy, have stored millions of tons of coal ash in large unlined pits, sitting in groundwater next to lakes and rivers,” Frank Holleman, senior attorney at SELC, said.
Lead communication consultant for Duke Energy Bill Norton said those lakes and rivers are well-protected due to surface water monitoring.
"All of our emissions to those lakes and rivers are under very, very strict state and federal permits designed to protect the public and the environment," he said. "The groundwater issues were primarily limited right next to or under our basins on plant property. That’s what we’re resolving now."
No coal ash sites in North Carolina have a bilayered composite liner, which is recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, and only four have a liner of any kind. The lack of a barrier between coal ash and groundwater poses a risk for coal ash pollutants to leak into the groundwater and possibly into drinking water sources.
Holleman worked on the settlement against Duke Energy, which was announced in January 2020 and resulted in the required cleanup of six of Duke Energy’s coal ash sites. Previous settlements required the cleanups at eight other coal ash sites. In total, all 14 sites are scheduled for clean up and 126 million tons of coal ash are anticipated to be excavated.
To address the unsafe storage of coal ash and pollution, in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the first federal regulation for the disposal of the material, the Coal Ash Rule.
Holleman explained the regulation created environmental protections which improved standards for coal ash storage and groundwater monitoring.
Since then, many of those protections have been rolled back. Holleman said environmental protection rollbacks by the Trump administration have made it easier for water pollution to occur. He said utilities companies have taken advantage of the rollbacks of regulations for toxic waste and coal ash storage.
“The Trump administration has been terrible on coal ash. They have been an enemy of cleaning up coal ash and the best friends coal ash ever had,” Holleman said. “Under the changes they have made, more toxic pollution will be in our rivers and lakes, and more cancer-causing substances will go into our drinking water supply.”
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