Brunswick education officials OK nearly $500k for playing field’s coal ash mitigation

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The Brunswick County school district hopes to reopen a South Brunswick Middle athletic field, closed in 2013 after the detection of coal ash, by the fall semester. Courtesy photo.
The Brunswick County school district hopes to reopen a South Brunswick Middle athletic field, closed in 2013 after the detection of coal ash, by the fall semester. Courtesy photo.

Brunswick County education officials have signed off on funding for a project to refurbish a Southport-area athletic field tainted by coal ash.

Nearly two years after the material was found beneath the South Brunswick Middle School baseball field surface, the board of education recently allotted approximately $290,000 to rehabilitate the field. Another $180,000 will be used to remove the pile of coal ash offsite to a landfill approved to contain the material, Sue Rutledge, director of operations for the district, said.

The coal ash was identified in late 2013, 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 the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) 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.”

Follow-up testing last year revealed higher-than-normal levels of arsenic – found naturally in small amounts in this region’s soil – but additional sampling of the groundwater since that time has come up without heavy traces of the chemical element.

Rutledge said DENR is currently reviewing Brunswick County Schools’ draft remediation plan.

“We expect to get that back any day, and based on their comments we will either talk with them and make changes to it or we won’t have to make any changes to it,” she noted.

Should the latter occur, Rutledge added, the approved plan would then be presented by DENR for an online 30-day public comment period.

Acknowledging the back and forth with DENR “just takes time,” Rutledge is hopeful that, pending response from the public, the district can soon begin bidding the project work, which includes placing an overlay of soil and grass on the field and installing an irrigation system.

Should everything move along according to schedule, Rutledge said the field should be reopened in the fall. And when student athletes do finally take the field again, she said they will notice some major improvements.

“That field didn’t have very good grass and playing conditions anyway,” she said. “And it did not have irrigation and was in really poor condition. Coal ash or no coal ash, this will be a nice field once this work is done.”

The estimated $470,000 price tag for the work is being paid for through the district’s existing fund balance. Although a host of upgrades to school athletic facilities is included in a proposed $153 million bond referendum the district hopes to include on this November’s ballot, Rutledge said the nature of the coal ash mitigation requires that field be renovated sooner rather than later.

Since the field’s closure, South Brunswick Middle school students have used alternate sites for practice and play, including adjacent South Brunswick High School and nearby Smithfield Park.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.