Last night’s Town Council meeting (March 8, 2023) once again touched on the coal ash buried on the police station site at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. And much of this discussion turned into political theater. Here’s what you missed if you didn’t power through the four-hour meeting.


We’ve covered this issue extensively when it has come up at previous meetings. Here’s the tl;dr:

1960s and 1970s

Clean soil was dug up from 828 MLK Jr. Blvd., and coal ash and other debris was used as structural fill. The police headquarters was built on the site in 1981. In the ensuing decades, we’ve learned that coal ash (which is the byproducts of coal combustion) is pretty nasty stuff, and the existence of the large piles of coal ash was discovered 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.


Over the past 10 years, the town has methodically researched the site, bringing in Hart & Hickman, an environmental consulting firm with expertise in addressing the challenges of polluted sites. After a number of analyses informed by testing at the site, the Town Council decided to enter the Brownfields program managed by the state Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ). Through this program, NC DEQ works with property owners to develop plans to address the human health risk of the pollution on the site so that redevelopment can take place.

That process has been ongoing. For nearly a year, NC DEQ has continued its review and worked with the Town and its consultant on the site and its safety concerns. This is all standard — it takes a long time to assess these projects which are all over the state of North Carolina.

September 2022

In September, the then-Town Manager recommended that the town not move forward with housing on the site at this time — but continue to assess the site and remediation plans to relocate the municipal services center. 

The current plan 

The current plan is still to investigate replacing the police station with a new municipal services building, if and when the site can be remediated. But of course, no significant events can occur — certainly no construction can take place — until NC DEQ, and the Town’s consultant complete their work, and the Town Council reviews that plan and makes a decision on how to move forward.

March 8, 2023

That brings us to the Council meeting last night. The item on the agenda was simple — to ask the Council for authorization to pay for early project expenses and later get reimbursed from proceeds of the $45 million bond that town voters approved for the project in 2015. 

Because NC DEQ’s work with the Town’s consultant is ongoing, there’s still nothing to share about how much of the coal ash should be removed from the site, and what type of methods should be used to contain the coal ash that remains. These are all things that will be determined in the future.

Political theater, again

The coal ash issue is fraught, and complicated — and the Town currently waiting for NCDEQ to issue their recommendations. This also makes it a “perfect storm” to hijack for political purposes.

In last night’s meeting, a parade of speakers nonetheless spoke to chastise the Town Council for the actions they’re supposedly taking, or failing to take around the site.

The clear assumption of the speakers was that the Town has decided to do nothing about the coal ash or, at least, decided not remove each and every piece of coal ash starting tomorrow, in clear opposition to “science.”

The flaw in this line of thinking is that the town has proposed doing something with the coal ash — the proposal they submitted to DEQ, based on the recommendations of the environmental consultants assessing the site for the past decade, follows best practices for a site like this. It 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. (More details here.)

The town is currently waiting for DEQ’s assessment of their plan. There’s no doubt in anyone’s minds that coal ash is harmful, and the plan they’ve submitted minimizes the chance that anyone will be exposed to coal ash — and minimizes the environmental and safety impacts of the site.

Speakers last night

Nick Torrey, an attorney from the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents Friends of Bolin Creek, asserted that Town Council should not move forward with building on the site until they have a safe plan to deal with the coal ash.

In other words, Torrey said that Town Council should not move forward with building on the site until they have a safe plan to deal with the coal ash.

That’s exactly what Town Council is doing. 

No building is going to be built on the site without a plan to address the potential harms of the coal ash.

But there is no plan yet. This is all political theater.

And here’s the background that’s important to understand

Nick Torrey is the hired lawyer for Friends of Bolin Creek, which opposes the Carrboro greenway, and shares an IP address with the notoriously anti-growth CHALT website, the Estes Neighbors website to oppose the Aura project, the Booker Creek Alliance website, and the Affordable Transit for All website, which was set up to oppose light rail. 

Julie McClintock, CHALT’s founder and its long-time leader, is also a leader in all of these organizations.

CHALT previously opposed an alternate site for a new police station and municipal services building, along Weaver Dairy Road and MLK Jr. Boulevard, because it would “singl[e] out one neighborhood to bear the brunt of the impacts of this project, especially if other, more suitable sites can be found.”  CHALT’s suggestion at the time? “Capping the buried coal ash and building new offices under the Brownfields program” at the 828 site. 

Now that the 828 project has moved slowly forward, CHALT is now trying to stop it from happening. (And you wonder why everything takes so long in Chapel Hill.) 

A piece published yesterday in The Local Reporter about this project fails to note any of these connections, and parrots the talking points that CHALT has surfaced about the project. This is not surprising, given the paper’s connections to CHALT.

What’s happening now

NC DEQ and Hart & Hickman are continuing to evaluate the risks of the coal ash on the site and decide which piles of coal ash need to be removed. (Everyone agrees a good chunk of the coal ash needs to be removed to assure the safety of the site) and which portions can remain safely with capping and other remediation techniques. 

The Town’s website has literally dozens of links to letters, studies, and other supporting documentation about the years of work that has been completed and that is still underway. You can’t reasonably complain that the Town is doing a half-assed job researching the issue.

Although not a scientist, council member Jess Anderson deftly summarized the issue, reminding all of us of the critical importance of taking an evidence-based approach to making tough decisions. We agree.

At some point, we’ll have a plan. We look forward to reviewing it. We look forward to hearing Hart & Hickman present it and answer questions about the plan. We look forward to hearing Town Council members poke and prod the assumptions and the conclusions and the cost estimates and deciding next steps.

It is right and proper to await the result of the thorough and comprehensive work that NCDEQ and the Town’s professional engineering consultants are doing to evaluate the final disposition of the coal ash under the site. 

We shouldn’t rush or short-circuit the process because some people fail to understand the process or its current status, or are ignoring the work the Town and its consultants are doing to further their own messaging and political plans.

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Geoff Green, AICP 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 that everyone can...