Coal ash sinkhole forces closure of long-loved local business

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A giant sinkhole in the parking lot of a much-loved local business is forcing it to close its doors for good tomorrow.

Tire Masters has served the Mooresville community for nearly three decades. But in September 2020, a massive sinkhole opened in its parking lot when a metal pipe and culvert system failed underground. 

It appears that the pipe was improperly installed years ago by either a contractor working for the previous landowner or the contractors working for Duke Energy. The pipe burrowed through 50,000 tons of coal ash “structural fill” — the equivalent of more than 4,000 large dump truck loads — to redirect 500 feet of an all-season creek under N.C. 150. The creek was then redirected above ground and into a Lake Norman tributary.

Mooresville Scoop photo. No media rights allowed.
Mooresville Scoop photo. No media rights allowed.

The coal ash came from Duke Energy. From 1995-2001, 1.24 million tons of coal ash was hauled from the company’s Marshall Steam Station to be used as structural fill for commercial development along N.C. 150 in Mooresville, now commonly called “coal ash corridor.”

As early as 1994, Duke Energy started petitioning the State of North Carolina to relax its rules on coal ash because the company needed to find a way to offload its coal ash – the toxic byproduct of burning coal – collecting at its power plants. Even while state environment officials urged against a change in the rules, warning of potential consequences to the environment and human health, Duke argued that the state’s requirement to record locations of “structural fill” – or sites where coal ash was essentially used as dirt – was “a barrier to the beneficial use” of coal ash.

The previous owners of the Tire Masters property assumed responsibility for Duke Energy’s structural-fill coal ash, which is recorded in the land deed. That’s why Duke Energy claims it isn’t liable for the pipe failure.

The current property owners, Christopher and Kimberly Medford, inherited the pipe and coal ash problem when they purchased the property three decades ago at 190 W. Plaza Dr., where Tire Masters is now situated.

The Medfords and their attorneys contend that Duke was closely involved in the design and construction of the piping project, knew about coal ash’s properties, and should have expected its eventual failure. 

Even so, after years of being tied up in a legal impasse with Duke Energy, the state and other property owners — and with the structural integrity of the Tire Masters building quickly deteriorating — the Medfords have decided to close Tire Masters’ doors.

“The owners of Tire Masters did not ask for this,” said Mayor Chris Carney, who was sworn into office in December. “It’s a tragic situation for them, and I’ll be fair: they’re not just somebody with a business here. Our employees use them. We know them personally. They’ve been a long-time business here, and we’ve been very thankful for that.”

Carney said the town has been “working hard on solutions” for the broken pipe and sinkhole and expects to hear updates from staff as early as next week. “We completely grasp and share the same concern that the sinkhole — and coal ash being introduced into our streams and lake — is a serious issue, and it has our board’s and staff’s undivided attention. The board has asked town staff to put every idea on the table, and they’re working diligently and tirelessly to do that.”

Meanwhile, the Medfords and their attorneys, Grimes Yeoman, said in a prepared statement, “Tire Masters is working diligently with the Town of Mooresville to come to a solution that resolves the sinkhole issue and ensures the safety of the public, its valued employees and customers. Tire Masters appreciates the significant past and ongoing efforts of Mayor Carney and other Town officials to find workable solutions to this difficult matter.”

While the Town of Mooresville did not install, inspect or maintain the pipe and says the pipe is not located in a town easement, projects that the town approved upstream from Tire Masters added high-velocity stormwater runoff to the creek water that flowed through the pipe. Once the pipe failed, it dumped all that water — along with coal ash — into a tributary that feeds into a source of drinking water for a million people. 


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Hi! I’m Jaime

I was a newspaper reporter in Mooresville, NC for a decade and covered local government issues from 2003 to 2006.