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Addressing Coal Ash
A perspective from Isabel Geffner
I attended the Chapel Hill Town Council meeting on Wednesday, March 9, and I spoke out in response to Discussion Item 8 on the Agenda: Update on the Municipal Service Center Project and Affirm Next Steps.
A viewer of the Agenda would need to have had an “inside scoop” on what the implications of the discussion item really were to understand the more nuanced – more specifically, obfuscated – topic under consideration.
I – and the many people who spoke – were there to address the unnamed issue on the Agenda: the existence of toxic coal ash at the site under discussion.
Let’s try to unpack the admittedly confusing issues that were really on the Agenda for this past week’s Town Council meeting:
1. There is a need for a new Municipal Service Center.
I don’t think there was anyone in the Chamber who objects to the fact that our fine city needs a new physical home for these services that meets 21st century standards of construction, connectivity, and cleanliness. The building that currently sits at 828 MLK Blvd. is decrepit, at best. I do think there were many people in the Chamber who object to the location of a new Municipal Service Center. Which brings us to:
2. There is incontrovertible, scientific, laboratory evidence that toxic coal ash is in the ground at 828 MLK Blvd.
The toxins are seeping into the ground, into Bolin Creek, and traveling to places not yet clearly identified. This is an enormous health risk to the people – residents, taxpayers, voters, children, grandparents, immigrants, EVERYONE – who lives in Chapel Hill – and perhaps those who live beyond the city limits. These are not random statements – the Town Council has heard more than ample scientific evidence of these facts. That UNC Chapel Hill was the source of this coal ash years ago is true – but a distraction from the fact that this health risk must be addressed.
3. The gold standard practice for coal ash remediation is complete excavation and removal.
Duke Energy has conducted complete, safe, and successful excavations across North Carolina; anything short of this process leaves remaining toxins, questionable conditions, and uncertain health risks. While the Town Council is asking the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for its remediation recommendations, it is known that historically DEQ recommends the least comprehensive clean-up plan.
4. The vast majority of people in Chapel Hill know nothing about the existence of coal ash at 828 MLK Blvd and of the profound health risks it poses.
Neither the Town Council nor the Mayor nor town officials have sufficiently informed the public about what is at risk at the site. Reports on the town’s website are wholly insufficient as a means of sharing public information that holds as many risks as this situation does. There has been a profound lack of transparent communication; simply look at the title and description of the Discussion item on the Town Council’s Agenda from last night. No mention of coal ash anywhere. Concerned speakers came to make sure that coal ash went on the record as part of the Agenda.
5. Access to clean, healthy, safe living conditions for every person is a paramount consideration for our shared community.
Environmental justice has been a clarion call for everyone I know who has been concerned with the coal ash issue at 828 MLK Blvd. In fact, protests took place after the City proposed to build affordable housing on the site resulting in the Council’s apparent removal of housing from its current proposal for the site – though it has not made a commitment to prevent housing from being built on the site in perpetuity. The implied suggestion made by a Council member that complete removal of coal ash is an act of environmental injustice is a misrepresentation; finding a site for the removed coal ash must be accomplished in a safe, just manner – a process that has successful precedent.
People of all ages came to the Council last night to share their profound concerns about the coal ash at the 828 site. It was a powerful demonstration that cross-generation advocates who are seeking a safe, just, expedient, effective resolution to this health threat. After many comments a Council member suggested that the community was airing a lack of trust in the Council’s judgement. Indeed, trust is on the line.
And so is our community’s health and well-being.
“Viewpoints” on Chapelboro is a recurring series of community-submitted opinion columns. All thoughts, ideas, opinions and expressions in this series are those of the author, and do not reflect the work or reporting of 97.9 The Hill and Chapelboro.com.