Sites of Coal Plants in NC


"A Sticky Situation"

Learn why scientists are investigating coal tar deposits

Where -- and why -- do coal tar deposits appear in soil and in water supplies? And why do many scientists believe that coal tar can be harmful to your health? The exhibit "A Sticky Situation" examines how UNC scientists are working to locate and remove coal tar deposits in our world.


Coal tar is a byproduct of coal gasification, the process that transforms coal into a gas that can be piped through towns to provide energy. Beginning in the 1600s, people burned coal gas to provide light and heat for homes, offices, schools and factories. Coal gas was a popular choice through the 20th century, and there were coal gasification plants throughout North Carolina. (Was there a plant near your home? Check the map at the top of the page!)

"A Sticky Situation" looks at places that we find coal tar in our environment and asks us to think like scientists: What are the effects of coal tar on us and on our environment, and what are some of the ways we can remove coal tar?

Admission to "A Sticky Situation" is free, and the exhibit is open during public visitation hours (Saturday-Sunday during the school year; Tuesday-Sunday during the summer). "A Sticky Situation" replaces "Zoom In" in Morehead's Lower Exhibit Gallery.

"A Sticky Situation" was primarily supported by National Science Foundation grant #0941235 (C.T. Miller, principal investigator). Additional support was provided by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant #P42ES005948 (J.A. Swenberg, principal investigator).

Is there a connection between coal tar and the North Carolina nickname "Tar Heels"?

No -- these refer to two different kinds of tar.

Coal tar is produced as a by-product when coal is burned and transformed into a gas. Its source is coal that has been mined from the ground and may be millions of years old.

Pine tar is produced when pine trees are burned, and it is a sticky substance that was traditionally used in shipbuilding to seal and protect each ship's wooden keel. Pine trees are abundant in North Carolina, and during the 1700s and 1800s, our state was a leading producer of pine tar.

According to popular legends, the North Carolina nickname "Tar Heels" refers to the determination of North Carolina soldiers to maintain their positions during Civil War battles, as if their feet were stuck to the ground with the pine tar that was commonly produced here. Since that time, North Carolina has been known as the "Tar Heel State" -- referring to pine tar, not coal tar.