Work continues to remove coal ash from Southport-area school field

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A softball field at South Brunswick Middle School remains closed after coal ash was found beneath the surface more than a year ago.

But Brunswick County school district officials hope to have the field cleared and ready for student-athletes by early spring 2016.

After additional analysis of the site, the district is now awaiting approval of an action plan from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) to complete mitigation, said Craig Eckert, director of capital projects and planning for Brunswick County Schools.

The coal ash was identified last year, several months into a project to renovate the existing field. According to district operations staff, a county engineer overseeing the original construction of the field in 1992 used coal ash–a free, readily available material from nearby the nearby Cogentrix plant–to fill the field.

Unaware the coal ash had been used–and noticing the soil looked unusual–the district ran initial tests that identified the presence of heavy metals, contacted NCDENR and voluntarily closed the field as a safety precaution.

Coal ash, the by-product from burning coal, contains, among other heavy metals, arsenic, lead and selenium.

“The state did not close the field; the school district decided voluntarily to do that,” Cathy Akroyd, public information officer for DENR, said in a previous interview. “We have done sampling, and it has shown that the field is safe for school sports.”

Additional testing earlier this year found higher-than-normal levels of arsenic–found naturally in small amounts in this region’s soil. Eckert said recent follow-up “re-samples” of the groundwater came up without heavy traces of arsenic.

Eckert now hope NCDENR will give the green light for the district to place a cover layer of soil on the field, with another top layer of sod.

“That’s our desired method of treatment,” he noted.

If approved by NCDENR, Eckert said the field could be open sooner than estimated.

“Definitely by early spring, but maybe sooner,” he said. “It’s not like just putting down seed and hoping for grass to come up. When you put down sod…and it takes, the grass comes up pretty quickly.”

Eckert said student athletes at the Boiling Spring Lakes middle school have used alternate sites for practice and play, including the adjacent South Brunswick High School and the nearby Smithfield Park.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.