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Coal ash concerns pause development by police department, EPA to assess site

The Chapel Hill Coal Ash Disposal Site stands behind chain link fence on Jan. 21, 2024.

A coal ash site near Chapel Hill Police Department may become a federal cleanup project, pending results of a preliminary evaluation by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Potential development at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. has stalled after the EPA decided on Jan. 17 to analyze the public health risk of coal ash on the site, Chapel Hill Town Manager Chris Blue said. Coal ash was first discovered at the location in 2013. After the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to determine whether the site is subject to cleanup in October, the EPA decided that the location will undergo preliminary assessment — a quick, low-cost compilation of a target site’s current and historical data.

Should the area meet certain guidelines as a result of the assessment, the EPA could oversee and provide federal money for remediation of the site.

“The current state of thinking about that property is we need to resolve all these questions about the condition of the property and the safety of the property for whatever future use could be contemplated,” Blue said.

Blue also wanted to be clear that the Town is not considering housing at the site.

The Town is also reviewing a draft risk assessment the EPA published last October, which determined coal ash may have higher risks of cancer than previously thought. The report cited recreation as a possible path for exposure.

Exposed ash currently sits on a hillside between the Chapel Hill Police Department and the Bolin Creek Trail. A sign warns residents to stay on the trail and a fence blocks the contaminated areas a few feet from the greenway.

In the October report, the EPA found one extra person per 10,000 people will develop cancer when coal ash makes up 8 to 17 percent of the soil in a location. These numbers are high enough to trigger EPA regulations.

While the risk assessment focused on the effects of coal ash at power plants,John Richardson, community sustainability manager, said he believes the EPA wants to be clear there is new information about the potential risks of coal ash, regardless of where it is.

The Town is currently trying to figure out what the risk means for the 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. site, which houses around 60,000 cubic yards of coal ash believed to be from UNC’s coal plant. While chemicals from coal ash have been found in groundwater on the site, data shows Bolin Creek has not been significantly affected

“We’re really in kind of a fact-finding mode and we’re gathering more information to understand that, but it’s still really early in the process,” Richardson said

Chapel Hill Town Council member Melissa McCullough, who spent over 30 years working for the EPA, said the agency will have experts involved in the preliminary assessment to find out the site’s dangers and how they can be mitigated.

Most importantly, the EPA assessment will give the Town an idea of what can be done and the amount of support it would take to make the location suitable for different uses, she said.

“It may be that the best use of the land is, I don’t know, to pave it over and turn it into pickleball courts,” she said.

McCullough said the exposed ash needs to be fixed. The Town has worked closely with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to learn how to do that, she said.

Some people want the coal ash on the site to be removed, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Southern Environmental Law Center, but McCullough said this creates the possibility of putting contaminated dust into the air. She also said there’s the problem of where the contaminated soil would be transported.

Richardson said it’s difficult to know when a decision about the site will be made, as the Town is working with the NCDEQ, the EPA and the Brownfields program simultaneously to draw conclusions. Additional safety measures may be added to the site as more information is revealed, he said.

But, Blue said guidance and containment measures taken and received from experts since the remediation project started have reassured them that the site is safe for 24-hour Town employees and greenway users in its current condition.

“I take comfort in that, as I did all the way back starting in 2013,” he said.


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