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Safe Housing for Chapel Hill

Everyone Deserves a Safe Place to Live




Chapel Hill’s Plan to Build Housing  on a Toxic Coal Ash Waste Dump at 828 Martin

Luther King Boulevard Is a Clear & Present Danger to Resident Health

Contact: Dr. Edward Marshall, edward.marshall@duke.edu


“Every child in Chapel Hill deserves the chance to come to school healthy and ready to learn. If we decide…to let some of our children grow up on giant mounds of hazardous coal ash, that goal becomes far harder to achieve.” Adam Searing, Chapel Hill Town Councilman (Daily Tar Heel, March 24, 2022)

The Town of Chapel Hill, NC, is planning to build about 275 housing units on top of 60,000 tons of a toxic coal ash dump at 828 Martin Luther King Boulevard. This violates the intent and spirit of The Coal Ash Management Act of 2014. It ignores the health science that coal ash’s toxic metals can cause cancer and death (Centers for Disease Control Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Toxicological Profiles https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/coalAsh.html#): It violates our fundamental right to safety and health. We must prevent this deliberate and willfully blind project which would put the health of children and families at risk of contracting cancer or other serious health problems. Please join us.

I.                    Overview

We are one of many national, regional, and community advocacy groups who have not yet been able to convince the Town to remove the coal ash.[1] No one is listening to the science that coal ash causes cancer and even death. In Mooresville and Huntersville, NC, two thyroid cancer clusters were found where hundreds of homes were built on coal-ash infused “structural fill”.  The Chapel Hill Town Council is not listening; they voted 8-1 to proceed with the next stage of the project, and in September, 2022, with all signs pointing to their approving it. The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is not listening. In fact, it took them a full 11 weeks to answer public questions after their May 16th public hearing, and then only after pressure on Region IV EPA. DEQ approves 98% of all Brownfield projects. The Governor’s Office is not listening. The University refuses to talk about it. We need your help to get them to listen and to act to prevent a public health catastrophe. All they have to do is remove the 60,000 tons of coal ash.

We are not opposed to affordable housing. We are opposed to people living on top of a coal ash dump. We do not want a cancer cluster in the heart of our town. We also want to ensure environmental justice for the low/moderate income citizens who would live there, and for those who live in the public housing project across the street. We are running out of time, though. Decisions are being made soon by the state Department of Environmental Quality, and then the Town Council. Make your voice heard.

II.                  The Chapel Hill Project & Its Many Risks

Chapel Hill is proposing to have the developer Belmont Sayre build 275 units of housing with 10-15% for low income people and people of color at 828 Martin Luther King Boulevard on top of a 60,000 ton coal ash dump, coal ash put there by UNC, Chapel Hill between 1950-late 1970s. The Town purchased the 10 acre site in 1980, apparently without due diligence to find out what was there. After the Duke Energy coal ash spill at Dan River in 2014, the Town realized there was toxic coal ash at this site. 1000 tons of coal ash were removed along Bolin Creek Trail, though exposed coal ash still exists on the Police Department property as of 5/13/22. The Town has approved a memorandum of understanding with the developer to use the Department of Environmental Quality Brownfield Agreement process to limit town liability for the health and environmental risks of coal ash; they plan to remediate the site by putting about 3 feet of dirt over the dump in what is known as a “cap and contain” strategy. There is substantial risk to public health and safety with this project.

Facts About Coal Ash & Health, Safety & Environmental Risks

·         16 Toxic Chemicals: There are 16 toxic chemicals in coal ash and fly ash, including Arsenic, Boron, Mercury, Lead and Selenium—each one can cause damage to our health and environment from cancer to death

·         Centers for Disease Control: These chemicals can cause nervous system damage, cancers of several kinds, and death; “There is no safe level of lead exposure, particularly for children.” Source: Centers for Disease Control, Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Toxicological Profiles WWW.ATSDR.CDC.GOV/toxicprofiles

·         Physicians for Social Responsibility: If eaten, drunk, or inhaled, these chemicals can cause cancers, cognitive deficits, developmental delays, and behavioral problems, heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, reproductive problems and impaired bone growth in children. (Source: https://www.psr.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/coal-ash-hazardous-to-human-health.pdf)

·         Cancers and Deaths in Mooresville and Huntersville: Developers built hundreds of homes on “structural fill” with coal ash in it. Two thyroid cancer clusters in these two towns were discovered, likely leading to the deaths of 12 people. Watch this video: https://youtu.be/vxGDjrKPRWk; in 2018, severe weather exposed coal ash at Lake Norman High School, resulting in about 25 students getting cancer and 6 dying. Susan Wind, formerly of Mooresville, has a daughter who contracted thyroid cancer while living on this coal ash; they moved to Florida and Susan is now leading the national campaign against toxic waste


2014 North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act is Clear:

·         Structural Fill Must Not Be:

o   Within the 100-year floodplain

o   Within 4 feet of the seasonal high ground water table

o   Within 50-feet of a property boundary, wetland, bank of a perennial stream or surface water body

o   Within 300-feet of a private dwelling or well

·         The Town says that the 828 coal ash dump was created before 2014 and therefore legally the state’s rules don’t apply. As Dr. Avner Vengosh, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science at Duke University points out, all coal ash dumps across the nation were created before 2014, making this “a bogus argument” on the Town’s part. In addition, the Town has a duty and moral obligation to protect the health of its citizens by using the 2014 standard.


Dr. Avner Vengosh, Coal Ash Scientist, Duke University—Risks of Building on a Coal Ash Dump

·         Toxic Metals at 828 MLK: On Sept. 8, 2022, Dr. Vengosh published a report citing 19 toxic metals in soil samples from 828 MLK Blvd, including mercury, lead, arsenic, and radium 226.

·         1st Risk of Coal Ash—To the Workers: During the demolition and construction at the 828 site, as long as the coal ash is there, there will be a substantial amount of coal ash dust that is released, some in plumes coal fly ash dust that would be a health risk to the workers as well as nearby neighborhoods; there is a public housing project across the street

·         2nd Risk of Coal Ash—To the People Who Would Live at 828 MLK: Soil Deterioration: if it is covered with 3-4’of dirt, it will not be stable long term and will deteriorate, exposing coal ash to the people living there

o   “Buried coal ash can be exposed, as it was in Mooresville and Lake Norman High School”

o   “Just putting dirt over it is not enough protection against coal fly ash”

o   “Weathering plays a major role—covered coal ash is not stable”

o   The topography of the steep slope to the creek also presents a serious issue in terms of soil stability and degradation, exposing coal ash (where we took the coal ash samples 8/1/22)

·         3rd Risk of Coal Ash—Leaching of Coal Ash into the Water Supply:

o   Up to 1 million people get their water from Jordan Lake; Bolin Creek flows into Jordan Lake; coal ash is right now exposed on the steep slope going down to the creek

o   Coal ash could also definitely leach into the underground water supply

o   To prevent this would require a liner underneath the coal ash

o   “Even if you close up all the places where there is coal ash, covering it won’t prevent leaching which will get into the ground water or the creek”

o   The Town has no plan to put in a liner

·         4th Risk of Coal Ash—No Continuous Monitoring of the Soil and Stream?:

o   Who would be responsible for monitoring it 20-30 years out?

o   The residents won’t; the Town won’t; DEQ certainly won’t

·         Dr. Vengosh’s Bottom Line: Not a Responsible Plan

·         “It is not responsible for the town to build on this site without knowledge of all the risks”

·         “The Town officials are in total darkness about the risks”


Dr. Julia Kravchenko, Duke School of Medicine

·         Dr. Kravchenko in 2018 published the results of a comprehensive review of all the research studies on coal ash and communities—113 of them

·         She found that exposure to coal can result in these diseases: Premature death, lung cancer, respiratory mortality, bronchitis and asthma in children, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, low birth weight, and Infant mortality

·         “…coal ash can impact human health at every stage of use—from the initial mining of coal to the post-combustion disposal of coal ash.”

·         In 2021, she also published definitive results in textbook chapter showing the relationships between coal ash and its health impacts


Dr. Kristina Zierold, University of Alabama, Birmingham—Health Risks for Children

·         Dr. Zierold is a leading coal ash scientist who has conducted research on the health impacts of coal ash and fly ash on children who live near coal ash dumps or plants

·         Health Risks to Children 6-14: Children who live in homes near coal ash dumps/plants have significant neurobehavioral issues involving mental health, depression, aggressiveness, ADHD, gastrointestinal problems, degenerative diseases, and respiratory disease (particles can penetrate the brain)

·         Health Risks to Residents at 828: Chapel Hill is going to build housing on top of coal ash, increasing children’s and residents’ risk of exposure to fly ash. Dr. Zierold’s research on people even living within the proximity of coal ash plants says: “Over the past 30 years, scientists reported that the people living in close proximity to coal-fired plants had higher rates of premature mortality…. respiratory disease and lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, poorer child health, and higher infant mortality.” (Health of Children Living Near Coal Ash, Sears, Zierold, Global Pediatric Health, Vol. 4: 1-6, 2017)

·         Capped Coal Ash Risks: Capped dumps still produce dust and the possibility of leaching into the water supply


Further Details About Chapel Hill’s Proposal

·         Coal ash was dumped at the 828 MLK site since the 1950s; the Town bought the property in the 1980s; not until 2013 did they realize there was toxic coal ash there

·         The coal ash came from the University of North Carolina’s power plant. University officials have declined to comment on this issue

·         In 2020, the Town removed 1000 tons of coal ash near Bolin Creek Trail based on State guidelines

·         Exposed coal ash still exists on the property and on the Bolin Creek Trail as of May 13, 2022

·         Nick Torrey, Senior Attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center, a veteran of coal ash investigations and lawsuits, has expressed his skepticism: “The long term concern is that covering this ash with a layer of dirt…will not remove these risks…” (WRAL TV Investigation, March, 2022)

·         “What we’ve urged all along is that the Town do the maximum possible to protect people and to protect clean water, and that includes being willing to commit to going beyond the minimum standards that the state might allow for this project.” (Daily Tar Heel Editorial, April 19, 2022)

·         Adam Searing of the Town Council opposes the project, and said there should be no housing built on this coal ash dump, and that the coal ash should be removed.


The Hart & Hickman Consulting Study

·         Hart & Hickman, with Poyner Spruill, Fact Sheet, 2/25/22: https://www.townofchapelhill.org/residents/community-sustainability/coal-ash-disposal-site-remediation-project

o   Says that “coal ash can still be used as structural fill today provided certain conditions are met and permits are obtained from the State.” Note: The Coal Ash Management Act explicitly forbids structural fill within 300 feet of a private dwelling

o   Says the coal ash is “almost completely covered” by the police station and parking lot with “just a few small areas of uncovered ash remaining along the steep site embankment”

o   Here is a picture of that “small area” as of 5/13/22. All of the gray in this picture is coal ash:

o   On August 1, 2022, Dr. Vengosh and his team took 8 core samples from at least 2 different locations at 828 Martin Luther King Boulevard, and is analyzing them; their analysis will be released by the end of August

o   Hart & Hickman’s report says this coal ash can be remediated by a retaining wall

o   Says it would cost $13-15 million to remove it with 5000 truck loads with considerable risk

o   Earth Justice consultants have estimated it would cost $2.5-10 million, or $42-83/ton

o   The Town already removed 1000 tons in 2020; this removes the Town’s argument they can’t do remove the remainder of the coal ash

·         The Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, DC, gave this opinion on 5/16/22 from Abel Russ, Director of the Center for Applied Environmental Science and a coal ash attorney:

o   The Hart & Hickman Risk Assessment shows that the site is not safe for redevelopment as a residential property, and it fails to show that the site is not adversely affecting local surface water.

o   Risk estimates presented by Hart & Hickman are too low. The true risks of redevelopment would be even higher if the Risk Assessment were to fully account for all coal ash risk drivers (boron, lithium, and molybdenum)

§  Boron was not analyzed at any soil sample location, and was barely sampled in groundwater

§  The word “lithium” does not appear in the Risk Assessment at all; neglects its harmful effects

§  The Risk Assessment was silent on cobalt and radium, a carcinogenic radionuclide, was not in the Risk Assessment


Why Would the Mayor & Town Council Deliberately Do This?

1.       Why would the Town of Chapel Hill deliberately build housing on a toxic coal ash dump which could damage the health and well-being of the people who would live there?

2.       Why won’t the Town remove it to protect the safety of our children, their families, and all the people who walk along the Bolin Creek Trail?


[1] Safe Housing for Chapel Hill, along with Friends of Bolin Creek, NC Conservation League, ACT Against Coal Ash North Carolina, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Chapel Hill Organization for Clean Energy, NC Environmental Justice Network, Southern Environmental Law Center, Earth Justice, Environmental Integrity Project