What are the ‘snow’ flakes falling on people in uptown Charlotte? Do not eat them.

Updated: Sep. 13, 2019 at 5:04 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Joe Marusak/The Charlotte Observer) - With a heat index of almost 100 degrees this week, why did snow flurries appear to be falling in a block of Church Street in uptown Charlotte?

Styrofoam flakes landed gently in the hair and face of pedestrians and on Reddit, people posted about the white stuff falling from the Grand Bohemian luxury hotel.

“Thought it was snowing in Uptown today,” a man wrote. “... Only to realize it was thousands of styrofoam particles from local construction. Gotta love when it lands all in your food and coffee!”

A worker at Not Just Coffee on South Church Street replied to the man, saying he and a friend were relaxing outside the eatery when they looked down and saw “little white things all over us and landing in our coffee.”

“From there it goes right into storm water, rivers, creeks, drinking water,” wrote another person on Reddit.

“I’m absolutely sure that is fantastic for the environment,” quipped another.

Charlotte officials say an inspector visited the Grand Bohemian construction site on June 19 and, on that day, found no Styrofoam littering problem. But, a site supervisor “indicated he was working (with) stormwater, solid waste services, and air quality inspectors to mitigate the problem,” according to a statement provided to the Observer by the code enforcement department.

Some uptown workers, though, say this is not the first construction site to pollute uptown Charlotte.

Uptown worker Paul Durfee told the Observer he has seen Styrofoam from construction projects litter streets, fall into the drinks and plates of diners and accumulate on the First Presbyterian Church property at 200 W. Trade St.

He watched as “a blizzard” of Styrofoam fell from one project last summer, he said, which was cleaned up later when construction workers removed the litter with leaf blowers and vacuum machines, which occurred daily.

Durfee says he also saw similar Styrofoam bits falling onto people years ago during construction of the Epicentre. He recalls riding CATS light rail from uptown and how many riders had Styrofoam stuck to them. When the train stopped near Pineville, he said, the doors opened and Styrofoam blew outside.

On Thursday night, mounds of Styrofoam collected at a storm drain, mixed in with rainwater, at the corner of Church and Third streets. More flakes were falling, too, outside restaurants at Tryon and 4th streets.

An official with JE Dunn Construction, the contractor on the $110 million, 254-room Grand Bohemian, told the Observer the company has measures in place to prevent littering nearby property. The hotel is being built at Church and Trade streets.

A spokeswoman for the Kessler Collection, the boutique hotel operator developing the Grand Bohemian, did not return a phone message from the Observer left on Sept. 3 about the flakes. An official “topping out” ceremony in March marked the halfway point in construction of the 16-story hotel, which is scheduled to open in early 2020, according to the Kessler Collection website.

Charlotte Storm Water Services officials say they’ve had complaints about Styrofoam pellets at the Grand Bohemian and at the Home 2 Suites hotel, at the corner of Caldwell and Stonewall streets. In total, city officials say so far this year they’ve had 11 Styrofoam complaints via Charlotte’s 311 line. Seven of those were about uptown littering and six specifically were about the Grand Bohemian.

When a complaint is made, the city conducts an inspection within three days and if a violation is found, a property owner is allowed seven days to fix the problem. If the problem isn’t fixed, city officials say they may issue a citation or take the violator to environmental court. In some cases, the city can hire a contractor to clean up the litter and then bill the property owner for the work.

Styrofoam is trademarked by Dow Chemical Co. Styrofoam was invented in 1941, originally for use in construction as a rigid foam insulation, The Washington Post reported six years ago.

The foam is made with expanded polystyrene, which is a type of plastic, according to Chemical Safety Facts.org, a website published by the American Chemistry Council.

Dow officials say they want to dispel the longtime public notion that they’re responsible for those flimsy, bad-for-the-environment white plastic drink cups you hold. The cups aren’t made from Styrofoam, Dow officials told the Post.

But people in uptown Charlotte complaining about Styrofoam “snow” say they’re just as concerned about the material’s effect on the environment.

For months, people have posted photos on social media of construction Styrofoam that’s floated away from construction zones.

“Snow in June ... or construction styrofoam? What responsibility do all these construction companies have to keep our city clean,” a woman tweeted this summer, along with a picture of fallen Styrofoam on an uptown sidewalk, next to a tree.

Hours before Thursday night’s Panthers-Buccaneers NFL game at Bank of America Stadium, uptown worker Dan Putman tweeted:

“Well folks it looks like the crews are on a lunch break, but watch for that powder to start falling again shortly. With crowds coming in for the big game, expect local surface lots to supplement with crumbled styrofoam cups.”

On Aug. 29, he’d tweeted a photo of one of the suspect buildings under construction, saying: “View of the styrofoam wonder. The forecast Uptown: a few more weeks of snowing foam bits.”

In a phone interview Friday, Putman told the Observer that Styrofoam flakes stick in his hair as he walks past a construction site to his office each day. When he first noticed the flakes sticking to him, he said, “I thought, ‘What in the world is going on?’”

He and colleagues have wisecracked about it with such remarks as, “We didn’t get much snow last year. We’re getting enough out of this to make up for it.”

Putman said he watched from his office window as workers at the Grand Bohemian site used a “reverse leaf blower” to collect the material.

In recent months, Observer reporters also saw Styrofoam flakes and chunks of Styrofoam falling onto sidewalks and streets during construction of high-rise apartment buildings on Stonewall Street.

Reacting to the recent Styrofoam hullabaloo on Reddit, one person urged everyone to chill. Charlotte has larger environmental issues, he said.

“I would be more concerned with the amount of pollutants from the number of cars here,” he wrote.

“Brake dust, lubricants and fuel spills that get washed into the streams along with the air pollutants from cars and trucks is a larger factor.”