The People Sickened By America’s Largest Coal Ash Spill May Finally Get Some Justice

This story is one reason Trump’s love for Big Beautiful Coal should give you pause.



few years ago, I went to a place called Kingston in Tennessee to report out a story about the aftermath of a massive coal-ash spill that nearly took out the entire town. The story never came together, but I’ll never forget the one guy who told me that, when the dam holding back the coal-ash let go, he woke up and looked out his front window. “I saw trees marching by the front of my house,” he said. At the time, the massive pile of debris was still there; earth-moving equipment was scattered all over the sides of the pile like so many toy trucks.

I went back there during the 2016 presidential campaign and saw that the recovery was almost complete. There was grass growing where once there was merely a massive mountain of sludge and debris. This week, however, we heard about the human cost of that recovery, and once again about how cheap human lives are compared to a bottom line. From the Knoxville News:

A jury in U.S. District Court spent five hours deliberating before returning a verdict Wednesday in favor of the hundreds of blue-collar laborers who say they were sickened during the clean-up of the nation’s largest coal ash spill. More than 30 workers who cleaned up the December 2008 spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant in Roane County are dead, and more than 250 are sick or dying. They sued Jacobs Engineering, a global contractor TVA put in charge of cleaning up its mess and keeping workers safe. TVA ratepayers paid the firm more than $64 million. Jurors deciding the first phase of the workers’ toxic tort lawsuit in Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan’s courtroom heard three weeks of testimony before returning its verdict.

This means the workers, or their surviving heirs, can now sue the engineering company for taking $64 million from the state while not implementing even the most rudimentary safety standards for its workforce.

Coal ash, a by-product of burning coal to produce electricity, is filled with a concentrated stew of toxins, including arsenic, radioactive material, mercury and lead. TVA makes millions each year from selling it for industrial uses, including mixing it in concrete. When a dike at the Kingston plant gave way just before Christmas 2008, smothering 300 acres of land in the Swan Pond community, construction workers from East Tennessee and across the nation responded–without any protection or training. Not only was the spill the nation’s worst but the clean-up itself represented the country’s largest worker exposure to coal ash.

Beautiful clean coal!


A coal pile in Tennessee in 1953.

Getty Images

Testimony showed Jacobs began watering down both safety testing procedures and worker safety rules as soon as the EPA allowed the TVA to put the firm–which has a long history of worker safety lawsuits and even criminal charges–in charge of the Kingston site. The workers were–falsely–assured coal ash exposure was safe and were misled about its dangers, testimony showed.

As many grew sick while working more than 60 hours weekly unprotected, Jacobs’ safety managers, including Tom Bock and Chris Eich, continued to insist coal ash exposure was not the cause. Testimony showed Bock ordered dust masks kept on site for the workers destroyed and refused to provide them any protective gear. Jacobs refused an EPA directive to provide the workers showers and changing rooms and instead provided them a cat litter box filled with ash-contaminated water to clean up.

Ohio's Struggling Economy

A coal-burning power plant in Ohio.

Getty ImagesBenjamin Lowy

Jacobs also was accused in the case of manipulating exposure level testing–watering down monitors and sampling on rainy days that dampened the level of coal ash dust in the air–and tampering with test samples–dumping ash from the monitor filters before sending them off to a laboratory. Jacobs’ lead attorney, Jim Sanders, left the courtroom Wednesday without comment. TVA has refused to discuss the case.

The news organization found evidence showing the EPA wanted the workers protected with respirators and Tyvek suits, but both TVA and Jacobs pressured the agency into allowing the laborers to work without protection. The news organization is currently investigating what happened to video footage that would have revealed the conditions in which the laborers toiled. Jacobs representative Jack Howard has testified TVA has the footage, but a letter obtained by USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee last week revealed TVA “no longer has” it. TVA won’t say why.

Right now, the Supreme Court has scheduled itself to hear a case regarding whether coal ash spillover into groundwater is covered by the 1972 Clean Water Act. (I am not optimistic.) Given the fact that resuscitating the dying coal industry is one of this administration’s primary fantasies, we’re all going to be hearing more about coal ash over the next couple of years, but Kingston remains the ultimate nightmare in which environmental disaster and corporate recklessness and deceit cooperate in sweeping away lives and property like trees marching ahead of a toxic flood.




Add Comment