tl; dr – There is a lot of misinformation circulating about the future of 828 MLK Jr. Blvd. This post details what’s happened so far, what the town has decided, and details why the counterarguments circulating right now about the redevelopment don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The history of coal ash at 828

In the 1960s and 1970s, the current site of the Chapel Hill police headquarters at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd was used as a dump for coal ash. Coal ash later was used as “structural fill” to help prepare the site for development. [UPDATE 4/18: to be precise, the site was used as a “borrow pit” — in other words, the original clean soil was dug up for use at other sites. Coal ash, along with other debris, was later used to help fill the site.]  The Town bought the property in the 1970s and opened the police headquarters in 1981. The presence of coal ash was identified in 2013.

In the decades since coal ash was dumped on the site, we’ve learned about the negative health impacts of coal ash, and with that better understanding of its risks have come new regulations that prevent dumping of coal ash in unlined containers as was done at the 828 site.

Assessing 828: A nine-year process

Now we are faced with the question of what to do with existing coal ash dumps. Since 2013, the Town of Chapel Hill has been evaluating the 828 site to determine how best to address the coal ash on site in a way that minimizes the risks to human health.

This nine-year process has involved multiple site evaluations and the implementation of temporary remedial measures designed:

  • To reduce health risks to the current police employees working on site
  • To reduce the risks of coal ash contaminants leeching into groundwater and Bolin Creek which is located below the site
  • To protect users of the heavily-trafficked Bolin Creek trail which was recently extended under Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

All the documentation regarding the Town’s efforts are available on the Town’s dedicated web page.

The Town has evaluated a number of options for addressing the coal ash risks permanently. After extensive discussion Town Council voted to move forward with a proposal to enter the Brownfields Program operated by the state Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ).

The Brownfields Program is a voluntary program where the agency works with owners of “brownfield sites”—sites with environmental contamination that hinders its development or redevelopment potential—to develop plans and programs that reduce the human health risk of the pollution on these sites.

This allows these brownfields to be developed safely and encourages redevelopment on more urban sites to reduce the pressures for sprawling development on so-called “greenfield” areas. Locally, the Wegman’s grocery store is an example of a successful redevelopment on a brownfields site.

The impact of the coal ash on the 828 site has been studied for nine years by a number of professional environmental consulting firms. Multiple reports have been produced. These reports have concluded that:

  • The temporary remediation measures that have been put in place since 2013 have successfully mitigated the risk to nearby users in the short term. (This allowed the completion of the Bolin Creek Trail extension under MLK Jr. Blvd., and its continued use over the subsequent years.)
  • The site can be made safe for permanent use by removing surface and subsurface coal ash and capping these areas with clean soil, buildings, and pavement, while leaving more deeply buried coal ash in place.
  • Building a retaining wall along the southern edge of the site, which has a substantial downhill slope, will prevent the remaining coal ash from escaping the site. This will mitigate risks to Bolin Creek and trail users, as well as other nearby property owners.
  • There are no groundwater wells nearby—OWASA provides water service to the surrounding neighborhoods—and imposing restrictions on future use of nearby groundwater would address potential future risks of groundwater contamination.
  • Annual inspections would help ensure that the containment strategy continues to work.
  • Placing restrictions on the 828 site’s property deed that limit future activities on the site (e.g., no digging below a certain depth) would further mitigate risks from the underground coal ash.

(Below, you can see what a land-use restriction looks like for the Wegman’s site.)

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Redeveloping the site: What’s happened so far

The Town has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with a private developer, Belmont Sayre, to move forward with a potential redevelopment of the site.

Belmont Sayre is a local company which specializes in redevelopment on environmentally challenged sites and is experienced in working with local and state governments through complicated efforts like the DEQ’s Brownfields Program.  (The Town’s outside attorney is also well-versed in the Brownfields Program.)

You may be familiar with Belmont Sayre’s Shelton Station project in Carrboro as well as their work at the American Tobacco campus.

The proposed project would include two main components. First, a new Municipal Service Center would replace the existing police headquarters, providing space for the police as well as additional town staff. (Development of a Municipal Service Center has been a top priority of the Town for several years.) This part of the property would continue to be owned and managed by the Town.

The second component would be a private development on a part of the property that would be sold to Belmont Sayre. The MOU does not currently mandate a fully affordable housing development, nor does it require any development in particular.

However, the Town Council has identified the site for potential affordable housing (in combination with market-rate housing) due to our urgent need for additional affordable housing opportunities. Moreover, a study by one of the Town’s economic development consultants concluded the site would not support office or retail/commercial development. Therefore, the consultant is moving forward with a concept for housing, including potentially both market-rate and affordable units.

Redeveloping the site: What’s happening now

The draft MOU was approved by the Council on March 9, 2022. Currently, the Town is moving forward with a review of concepts for the site, and also discussing entry into the Brownfields Program with staff from DEQ (who have also been monitoring activity on the site since 2013).

Development on a site with coal ash obviously is inferior to the ideal scenario, which is to go back in time and prevent coal ash from being dumped on the site before development takes place. As time travel is impossible, this is not quite feasible.

Another alternative would be to remove all the coal ash from the site and transport it elsewhere for disposal. That poses its own problems. According to the Town’s consultants, removing all the coal ash would require thousands of truck trips to and from the site. Each truckload will be noisy, and each truck will spew diesel exhaust on the neighborhoods along MLK Jr. Blvd. Each truck would have to travel at least 40 miles to a landfill that accepts coal ash, causing significant carbon impacts. There will be impact on the communities out-of-sight, out-of-mind where the coal ash is dumped. It would result in up to three additional years during which the police will have to be housed in temporary quarters while the existing site is cleared out. Finally, the impacts doesn’t account for impacts to workers during the removal process and the potential for accidents which could result in significant coal ash discharge to Bolin Creek. These accidents would occur only because deeply-buried coal ash was deliberately uncovered.

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Recently, there has been some misinformation being spread about the site and about the redevelopment project. Photos show uncovered coal ash on the site, and comparisons are made to spills at Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds which caused significant contamination over a wide area. The danger of coal ash is emphasized. Council members are accused of being willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor by housing them on environmentally dangerous lands.

But none of these complaints stand up to scrutiny.

First, it’s clear that at present there may be uncovered coal ash on the site, and there is certainly coal ash immediately below the surface. It wouldn’t be safe for kids to come to the site and dig with their hands right now. That’s why the proposal removes all surface coal ash and coal ash that is immediately below the surface and covers it with several feet of clean soil or an impervious surface such as concrete or a building. As the consultants have noted, coal ash that is 10-15 feet below the ground or deeper is not going to pose a health risk to employees or residents on the site. (The site will pose a moderate risk to the employees who will be doing the remediation work, which is why the consultant recommends special protocols to protect those workers.)

Second, these dry ponds are very different from the wet ponds that Duke Energy used or even uncovered dry landfills. There will be no dam that will catastrophically collapse as at Duke’s wet ponds. There are (and will) be no piles of coal ash that can be blown off the site. Moreover, the consultant has comprehensively mapped the surrounding area and the flow patterns and has determined that a retaining wall on the southern edge of the site, properly maintained, will contain the underground coal ash and prevent it from dispersing off the site.

Third,  the people who claim it would be a health risk to house people on the site, whether they are people renting market-rate apartments or affordable units, have not identified exactly what the health risks would be. Upon remediation, there will be no coal ash on the surface. There will be no coal ash on the site immediately below the surface. All areas of coal ash will be capped. Some have shared pictures of other sites featuring large piles of coal ash ready to be blown into the air, but of course there will be no such piles on the site.

In his recent newsletter, Chapel Hill council member Adam Searing references several studies which he claims show coal ash is particularly dangerous to children living nearby including increased incidence of depression. But these studies involve radically different circumstances. One study involves neighborhoods directly next to large open-air coal ash storage right next to neighborhoods, and the other involves fly ash emitted from a coal-fired power plant located right next door. That’s obviously not the case here.

Coal ash is dangerous if people come in contact with it, but the whole purpose of the remediation effort is to make is so that no one touches or inhales it. If there are flaws in the remediation plan, by all means, they should be addressed. But the gist of current arguments is that coal ash is dangerous, the site won’t be safe if there’s any coal ash remaining anywhere on the site, therefore the only safe option is to remove all the coal ash. That’s a naive syllogism.

Finally, none of these counterarguments to the redevelopment of the site grasp with the unquestioned environmental and safety impacts of the 5,000 truck trips that would be needed to clear the site of coal ash. There won’t be magical electric-powered fairy trucks clearing the site. That effort would require workers to come in contact to coal ash that would have been safely covered by many feet of soil and by concrete and would likely never have impacted anyone.

There’s no doubt that exposure to coal ash is harmful. That’s why the majority of the Town Council has voted to move ahead with redevelopment of the 828 site in a way that best minimizes the chance that anyone will be exposed to coal ash.

More information about the Town’s efforts to remediate the coal ash on the 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. site are on its coal ash disposal site remediation web page.

Geoff Green

Geoff Green, AICP (@geoff_green) lives in Chapel Hill. In his day job he's a practicing urban planner; in his spare time he rides his electric bike around town and advocates for improved facilities so...

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