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Chapel Hill awaits results of soil testing for coal ash

The Chapel Hill Police Department is pictured on Oct. 7, 2022.

The Town of Chapel Hill is currently awaiting the results of a recent soil sampling test performed at 828 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd., according to Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger.

The test was performed by Hart & Hickman, an environmental consulting firm that has worked with the Town since the discovery of coal ash on the site in 2013.

Hemminger said the Chapel Hill Town Council is still interested in having its municipal services center, police station and other departments at the location, although it will discuss the sampling results before taking any steps forward.

However, she said the Town is not currently considering building housing on the site.

A risk assessment report from Hart & Hickman released on Oct. 7, 2021, indicated that risk levels at the site were acceptable for non-residential workers and users of the nearby greenway. This means that, for these groups, or people, use of the site is considered safe.

However, acceptable risk levels were exceeded at the location for future residents and construction workers. 

Safe Housing for Chapel Hill, a group that describes themselves as committed to safe, affordable and environmentally just housing, believes Hart & Hickman failed to provide the Town with a complete assessment of health risks caused by coal ash.

Avner Vengosh, a distinguished professor of environmental quality at Duke University, said Gordon Williams, one of his students, conducted a study on the contents of the coal ash on the site after his group was invited to test the area by Chapel Hill Town Council Member Adam Searing.

"When one of the council members invited us, it was very natural for us to continue to analyze the Chapel Hill coal ash," Vengosh said. "My group is not only working on water, but we work a lot on soil and coal ash is associated with that."

The report, which was released in September by researchers from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Appalachian State University, collected samples of the soil and used physical observations, optical point counting analysis and trace element analyses to study them.

The concentrations of toxic metals in the site's coal ash were discovered to be 10 to 30 times the baseline soil concentrations in North Carolina.

The chemicals in the coal ash also exceeded the EPA's threshold guidelines for ecological standards, which may pose human and environmental health concerns, according to the study.

Vengosh spoke at a September panel hosted by Safe Housing for Chapel Hill, where he explained both the report and the dangers of coal ash in residential areas.

"Coal ash is not defined as a hazardous waste, but by all means of scientific criteria, it is hazardous material — it cannot be part of our life," he said during the panel.

Over the past 30 years, scientists have also found that people living in close proximity to coal-fired power plants had higher rates of all-cause and premature mortality, according to a study from Dr. Julia Kravchenko, an associate professor of surgery at Duke University, and Herbert Kim Lyerly, a distinguished professor of immunology at the Duke University School of Medicine.

Their study, which included an analysis of 113 peer-reviewed articles on the subject, found the elevated health risk may be associated with exposure to air pollutants from plant emissions and a spectrum of radioactive isotopes and heavy metals in coal ash.

The study suggested more studies on the health impacts of coal-burning power plants in North Carolina to profile the severity of cumulative impacts of different air, water and soil contaminants. 

Kravchenko, who also spoke at the September panel, said the coal ash at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. should be removed before further development.

"The ground, the surface, should be clean," she said. "Before doing something — a playground, an apartment complex or just some rest area — everything should be removed."

She said the issue is that there are still not many studies in communities located near areas at a higher risk of coal ash exposure. The waste has very different version-specific components based on geographic area, she added.

Because of this, it is important to test a specific area's soil and look at its contaminants to make projections about how it would impact the health of surrounding communities, Kravchenko explained. 

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"I think everyone can agree that coal ash itself can be toxic to humans in certain conditions," Hemminger said. "We have a very different site here than the ones they are talking about in most of their articles."

She said Hart & Hickman deemed digging up the coal ash and transporting it elsewhere hazardous to the health and safety of community members. Capping and containing the ash is the best option moving forward, and there are people who know how to do it well, she said.

Still, a report from Earthjustice, a nonprofit public-interest environmental law organization, said the cap-in-place method leaves coal ash sites permanently vulnerable due to floods or cap failure during extreme storms.

Removal of coal ash, in contrast, typically mitigates risks of both groundwater pollution and catastrophic spills, according to the report.

The report stated that different closure approaches result in different outcomes for environmental, economic and public health in each community.

Quantifying different approaches is important to help inform public officials, regulators and residents as the appropriate method is chosen, the Earthjustice report also stated.

Hemminger said the Town has been transparent about what it has learned, followed the science, hired reputable firms for the investigation and worked closely with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

"We've been working towards solutions for this site and will continue to do so," she said. 


@DTHCityState | 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated information from a risk assessment by Hart & Hickman. The article has been updated to more reflect accurately reflect the report. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.

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