Update on coal ash: There’s a lot of misinformation circulating

We are dismayed that misinformation continues to spread about coal ash and the 828 MLK site in Chapel Hill. You can read our previous deep dive on this project if you’d like to know more about what’s happened so far, what the town has decided, and why the counterarguments circulating about the redevelopment don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Here’s the current status of the site:

No decisions about housing have been made by Chapel Hill Town Council.

Mayor Pro Tem Karen Stegman’s excellent and comprehensive blog post on this subject details the history of the site and the current status of the project. She writes, “Aside from the Municipal Services Center, no decisions have yet been made about what else will be built on the site and there are many more steps that will stretch over a year or more before a final decision is reached. Regardless of what housing is or is not built on the site, we will have police and other Town staff working there so we are unquestionably committed to ensuring the site is safe for all who use it.”

In early September, the town manager released a memo that said the housing component part of the project may be paused at this time.

In a status update on the project, Chapel Hill Town Manager Maurice Jones wrote, “As we have conducted this work, it has become apparent that rising costs and interest rates pose a significant challenge to the proposed residential project. With this in mind, staff will be looking into a third option – a phased approach. Under this plan, the Town would begin moving ahead with site remediation and construction of the MSC now with steps taken to allow for future development (commercial, office, or housing) on the remainder of the site at a later time.

As you know, replacing the current police station with the new Municipal Services Center, is a top priority for our organization. We believe this phased process will allow us to address health and safety concerns on the site and provide quality working space for our staff in a timely manner. Defining a timeline for the MSC will also allow staff to begin planning in earnest for the possible redevelopment of the Plant Road site for affordable housing.

This new approach would require the Town to take on the full cost of remediation at the 828 MLK site. Funding options for the remediation include utilizing our own debt capacity, procuring Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants and researching other funding assistance programs.

No matter which direction we take, the Town will continue to be driven by science including the research that has been conducted on this project. We remain committed to ensuring that this property will be safe for all uses and users in the future. We look forward to presenting this information in greater detail, for your consideration and approval at a future Council meeting.”

The Town of Chapel Hill is currently waiting for the results of monitoring and testing on the site. Nothing has changed.

Jones’ note also says testing and monitoring is underway by Hart and Hickman, the environmental consultants who were brought on to help with this. Results will be available in a few months.

In 2021, The Town of Chapel Hill entered the Brownfields Program operated by DEQ. The status right now is: nothing has changed.

In 2021, the Council voted to move forward with entering into a Brownfields Program operated by 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 status right now is: waiting. Nothing has changed since they submitted the application. We recommend reading Mayor Pro Tem Karen Stegman’s post in full (and subscribing to her newsletter – she often provides great updates) to better understand this issue.