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The Daily Tar Heel

Chapel Hill continues to struggle with coal ash, affordable housing

Nick Torrey, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, is pictured in his office on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.

As rental prices fluctuate across the state and Chapel Hill looks to diversify housing options, some residents are concerned with the environmental safety of both existing and proposed affordable housing communities.

For the past decade, the Town has struggled with the future of the police station at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 

In 2013, the Town announced the discovery of coal ash under the station and in the surrounding area. However, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said the Town knew there was coal ash at the location when they acquired it in the 1980s.

"The Town took the site on knowing that there was coal ash mixed with dirt and construction debris there," she said. 

One proposition is redeveloping the land for mixed-use development including affordable housing, but many in the community have raised concerns about potential health risks for future residents.

Nick Torrey, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that to his knowledge, building housing on top of coal ash has not been done before and that the Town's own consultant found unacceptable risks for potential residents. 

While removing the coal ash is possible, the Town has opted against it, citing "prohibitive costs," which it estimates could be up to $16 million.

Torrey said coal ash removal is being done across the region, and, that the Town's estimated cost was "extremely high" compared to that of other projects nearby.

“This only looked at sort of an all or nothing approach in what they've done so far, that is completely excavating the entire site, or essentially doing nothing, and leaving all the coalition in place,” he said. "This site has one area that's very problematic, where a lot of the ash is concentrated on that steep slope right above the Bolin Creek Greenway, so you could remove that and deal with most of the problems."

He said that SELC works to make sure these concerns are listened to and dealt with by the Town.

Linda Brown, a Chapel Hill resident and a member of Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, said she is already concerned with the conditions of the Town’s existing affordable housing communities and opposes residential development at the site.

“It is an environmental injustice to place affordable housing on toxic coal ash heaps,” she said. 

Hemminger said because of limited space and the cost of mitigation, the Town does not plan on using the site for affordable housing, and that it is still being considered for the location of a municipal services center.

The Town is currently waiting to hear back from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality on the results of additional testing they performed last year. Hemminger said the Town will be bringing the issue forward again sometime this spring.

While the future of 828 MLK Jr Blvd. is uncertain, other areas of low-income housing have taken on significant environmental hazards.

Northside and Pine Knolls are two of Chapel Hill's historically Black neighborhoods, both of which are near the UNC Cogeneration Facility that was built in 1939.

A 2021 study from the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club showed that the University had violated the Clean Air Act 7,830 times since December 2014, 217 of which were from the plant burning too much coal. The two organizations, joined by the Town of Carrboro, are suing the EPA to act on this issue.

UNC said in 2010 that it would phase out coal by 2020, but this goal has since changed. The University now aims to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

One of the Town’s most prominent environmental justice issues was a landfill placed next to the historically Black Roger-Eubanks neighborhood in 1972. According to a neighborhood community center website, the community was promised recreational facilities and improved infrastructure in exchange for the allowing the construction landfill, as well as the assurance it would be sealed in about ten years.

A decade later, no promises had been fulfilled, and the landfill expanded instead of closing. For 31 more years, the landfill remained open and in use until it closed in 2013.

The neighborhood is also at the center of the Greene Tract project, which revolves around 104 acres of land owned by Orange County, Carrboro and Chapel Hill. The land was purchased in 1984 as a potential site for a landfill but has remained empty since then. 

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In November 2021, the Greene Tract Resolution was passed by the three jurisdictions designating 66 acres of the land for development, 22 acres for a joint preserve, and 16 acres for a public school and recreation site, but there has been little progress on the plan since. 


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