A federal jury in Tennessee on Wednesday sided with a group of workers and their families that alleged a contractor did not take the necessary steps to protect the health of the workers assigned to clean up a massive 2008 coal ash spill.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), owner of the coal-fired Kingston power plant in eastern Tennessee, paid Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. millions of dollars to clean up the massive coal ash spill. During the cleanup, however, workers started getting sick.
More than 30 workers assigned to cleanup work at the Kingston site have died and more than 250 are sick or dying.
The U.S. District Court jury in Knoxville, Tennessee ruled that Jacobs Engineering failed to meet the terms of its contract with TVA — terms that included taking basic measures to keep its workers safe — when it was chosen to clean up the site, which saw the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.
The cleanup work followed the spill on December 22, 2008 of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash that was held in coal ash pond in Roane County. The spill covered 300 acres in the area near Swan Pond and the Emory River. The coal ash was a byproduct of burning coal in the nearby power plant.
The jury’s verdict will allow the sickened workers and the family members of the workers who died to seek damages from Jacobs Engineering, including money to cover medical treatment. Many of the workers’ family members also are believed to have been sickened by exposure to the coal ash the workers brought home on their skin and clothing after each day on the job, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.
The case consolidated the claims of 70 different workers involved in the cleanup project managed by Jacobs Engineering.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages for “physical injury, pain and suffering, mental anguish, increased risk of disease, fear of disease, medical expenses, medical monitoring, and compensatory damages in any amount or amounts fair to be determined by a jury at trial.”
During the trial, a worker for Jacobs Engineering testified that the company was more worried about public perception than worker safety.
A company supervisor told the worker, Robert Muse Jr., to report any other workers who were wearing respiratory gear to clean up the coal ash and that the employees would be dealt with — the company didn’t want the workers wearing safety gear for fear about how that would look. Jacobs Engineering did not want to give the appearance that the coal ash was something the public should worry about.
The trial represented the first phase of the case against Jacobs Engineering. The jury was tasked with deciding whether Jacobs Engineering had a duty to protect its employees, whether it breached that duty, and whether the chemicals at the site are capable of causing the diseases workers say they have.
The jury ruled Wednesday that Jacobs Engineering failed to adhere to its contract with TVA, failed to “exercise reasonable care” in keeping workers safe, and likely caused the poisoning by coal ash of the workers.
A Jacobs spokesperson told ThinkProgress she could not comment on whether the company plans to appeal the verdict.
The second phase of the trial — the damages phase — will require each sickened worker or the families of deceased workers to show the illnesses were a direct result of their cleanup work at the coal ash disaster site. This phase is scheduled to begin sometime in early 2019.