Chapel Hill is considering redeveloping a site that sits atop a colliery despite warnings
Coal ash management in North Carolina has long been a sordid issue.
Last month, in response to the town of Chapel Hill’s proposal to build on top of an existing 60,000 ton coal ash deposit without removing the coal ash, a group of residents known as Safe Housing for Chapel Hill has hosted three of the country’s top scientists. in a public forum for the purpose of educating citizens on the dangers attributed to coal ash.
“Coal ash is the new asbestos,” said Edward Marshall, a professor at Duke’s School of Engineering, who led the forum.
The property at the center of the debate runs along the Bolin Creek Parkway at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a mile north of busy Franklin Street. It has been the only headquarters of the Chapel Hill Police Department since the 1980s, but it is also the site of a coal ash fill from the 1960s and 1970s.
When plans to rebuild the current police station were originally submitted in 2013, the city of Chapel Hill discovered the coal ash dump buried at the site, and authorities have since sought to remediate the property.
Current plans the city has released outline the construction of a new municipal services center of approximately 80,000 square feet, which is expected to include a rebuilt police station, as well as the addition of private development and a total of 225 to 275 multi-family residential rental units. , all of which would be built directly on the existing 60,000 ton coal ash deposit.
“The city [of Chapel Hill] failed to make a compelling, science-based case for building above 60,000 tons of coal ash,” Marshall said at the meeting. “All we want the city to do is remove the coal ash before building anything. It is the moral and public health responsibility of the City Council and Mayor to keep our citizens safe – the proposed plan does not.
However, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger says the city understands the dangers attributed to coal ash and further assures that current plans to not removing coal ash have been well studied.
“We can all agree that there are concerns about coal ash,” she says. “We explored the digging [the coal ash] but it was going to cause more environmental problems in many ways, causing fly ash and all the hazards associated with digging up and transporting with trucks. This would ultimately put the community at greater risk [to remove it].”
Hemminger has since said that due to costs, plans for all residential units to be built on the site have been pushed back into later phases of the project, while plans for the civic center and rebuilt police station are still in the works. .
For Marshall and other forum participants, removing residential units from development plans is not enough. They asked why the city seemed to be ducking the glaring problem at hand.
Hemminger declined to attend last month’s forum, as did all but one city council member, Adam Searing. Searing was the only city council member to vote against the proposed redevelopment project.
“It’s wonderful that the community is asking the questions they are asking,” says Hemminger, “but we’ve employed top-notch scientists and we’ve met the [NC Department of Environmental Quality]and this group of citizens [who attended the forum] had also met the DEQ, and they were told the same thing we were told: that capping it and controlling it where it is is the best way to go.
NC DEQ officials also declined to attend last month’s forum.
“It’s been going on for a long time now,” Hemminger continues. “[The town has] been very open and frank about everything. I learned this when I took over as mayor seven years ago, and we publish our progress, continually test, and constantly monitor groundwater and the creek. We are happy to say that the creek showed no signs of coal ash. »
Earlier last month, the city released a memo discussing the current status of the proposed project.
“Over the summer, we continued to work with the NC DEQ through the EPA’s Brownfields program,” the memo said. “We have also continued to work with Hart & Hickman, our environmental consultants, who are performing ongoing monitoring and additional testing at the site as requested by NC DEQ as standard procedure for the Brownfields program. “
The EPA’s Brownfields Program provides grants and technical assistance to communities, states, tribes and others to assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse contaminated properties. It is estimated that there are over 450,000 Brownfields properties in the United States.
According to NC DEQ, as documented in a public Q&A meeting in May, the Brownfields program “is still reviewing the assessment data collected at this site and further assessment should take place…. Contaminants identified on Chapel Hill Police property are high metals from coal ash.
The presence of high metals was a focal point at last month’s forum. Metals include antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, radium, radon, thallium, thorium, and uranium, all of which are known to have serious effects on health due to exposure.
Forum scientists took turns sharing collected research on the effects of exposure to coal ash with grave concern.
Avner Vengosh, a professor of environmental quality at Duke, reported that the composition of soil samples taken from 828 MLK Jr. Boulevard revealed a total of 19 toxic metals, including levels of arsenic, lead and radium that were three to four times that of the EPA allows.
Health risks from exposure to metals found in coal ash include liver, kidney, and heart damage, as well as damage to the nervous system and even cancers of the lung, prostate, and tract. urine, to name a few.
“Overall, studies show higher all-cause mortality; premature death and infant mortality rates; increased risk of cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases; lung cancer; and a higher prevalence of low birth weight in newborns reported in association with air pollutants linked to coal-fired power plants,” wrote Julia Kravchenko, associate professor of surgery at Duke School of Medicine, in an article. research published in 2018.
Kravchenko’s research shows that, unfortunately, studies with direct measures of exposure and health status in communities adjacent to coal ash dumps or reservoirs in the United States are currently unavailable.
Additionally, no studies with direct measurements of individual or group/community exposures that can provide scientific rationale for policy changes in the United States are currently available.
Both Vengosh and Kravchenko attended the forum, as well as Susan Wind, a former Mooresville resident, who joined in to share her daughter’s story.
Wind’s daughter Taylor, who now has thyroid cancer, was one of 25 Lake Norman area children and teenagers suspected of contracting cancers linked to improper coal ash disposal in their community.
Statistics from the state’s Central Cancer Registry showed that over the past 26 years, Iredell County has reported higher incidences of thyroid cancer than the state average, in some cases three times higher. In May 2018, state and county health officials designated two ZIP codes near Lake Norman as suspected cancer clusters, one of them being 28117, where the Wind family had resided.
Lake Norman High School, where Wind’s daughter attended when she was diagnosed, was found to have been built next to a 42,000-ton coal ash deposit, a site that is no different. from that of 828 MLK Jr. Boulevard.
According to Wind, a number of children and teenagers in the Lake Norman area who had contracted cancers similar to her daughter’s have since died from complications.
Pamela Schultz, former chair of the Chapel Hill Stormwater Advisory Board, spoke after Wind.
“Our bodies are not designed to be exposed to these chemicals, but the conversation is that there are no short-term effects from exposure to coal ash,” she said. . “We need more medical data. The risks are greater than we thought.
As the city begins its long journey down the road to remediation, Hemminger says the City of Chapel Hill is committed to redeveloping the site safely from the start.
“We all learn to live with it,” says Hemminger. “We learn as much as possible.”
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