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Sickened Kingston coal ash workers claim company hid health risks, tampered with air monitors

Trial begins in lawsuit brought against contractor hired to clean up largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Coal ash that spilled from a coal ash pond at TVA's Kingston coal-ash plant in Tennessee on December 27, 2008. CREDIT: Wikemedia Commons
Coal ash that spilled from a coal ash pond at TVA's Kingston coal-ash plant in Tennessee on December 27, 2008. CREDIT: Wikemedia Commons

The trial in one of the nation’s worst workplace negligence cases began this week in federal court in Knoxville, Tennessee. The workers assigned to clean up the massive coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston coal-fired power plant are finally getting their day in court.

After the jury was seated, it didn’t take long for witnesses to cast management of the coal ash clean-up in a bad light. A worker for Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., the contractor put in charge of site cleanup, 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. Jacobs Engineering did not want to give the appearance that the coal ash was something the public should worry about.

Nearly 10 years have passed since 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled from a retention pond adjacent to the TVA Kingston coal-fired power plant in eastern Tennessee. The spill was the worst coal ash disaster in U.S. history; it occurred in the early morning hours of December 22, 2008, when a retaining wall failed at the huge coal ash retention pond.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) selected the Superfund program in 2009 as the best regulatory vehicle to address the coal ash disaster “due to its comprehensive human health and ecological risk assessment process and its proven ability to actively engage and involve multiple stakeholders in large, complex environmental cleanup projects.”

Home and land owners have already been able to receive compensation for damages from the spill. The TVA finished its major cleanup work of the site at the end of 2014. The federal power agency reported spending more than $1 billion on the cleanup project. It sent 41,000 rail cars of ash to a landfill in Alabama.

The Kingston coal plant, with a generating capacity of almost 1,400 megawatts, is still in operation. The plant burns about 14,000 tons of coal a day, an amount that would fill 140 railroad cars.

Cleanup work at coal ash containment site adjacent to TVA's Kingston coal plant in Roane County, Tennessee. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress
Cleanup work at coal ash containment site adjacent to TVA's Kingston coal plant in Roane County, Tennessee. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress

But long after the cleanup has finished, impacts from the contamination are still being felt.

Many of the workers were forced to leave their jobs after they got sick during cleanup, not knowing at the time that breathing in the coal ash had made them sick. And nearly a decade after the devastating coal ash spill in Roane County, Tennessee, more than 30 clean-up workers are dead and more than 250 are sick or dying — all from illnesses and diseases reportedly linked in medical studies to the toxins from coal ash.

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The workers now are suing Jacobs Engineering, the contractor put in charge of cleanup of the site, alleging the firm lied to them about the dangers of long-term exposure to coal ash, denied them protective gear, and tampered with testing that was designed to keep both the public and the laborers safe.

One of the employees for the company hired to clean up the spill told the court on Wednesday that if he and his fellow workers had known what was in the coal ash, they would have quit their jobs.

The case has consolidated the claims of 70 different workers involved in the cleanup project managed by Jacobs Engineering. The jury trial is taking place in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, about 35 miles northeast of Kingston.

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.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority built an overlook where the public can view progress on recovery efforts from the Kingston coal ash disaster. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress
The Tennessee Valley Authority built an overlook where the public can view progress on recovery efforts from the Kingston coal ash disaster. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress

In its defense, Jacobs Engineering’s attorney is contending that the workers are lying about the steps the company took to cover up the contamination and — even if the workers are not lying — Jacobs Engineering had no duty to protect them.

The Knoxville News Sentinel brought greater public attention to the plight of the workers assigned to cleanup up the toxic waste from the site. The newspaper, which has won awards for its coverage, examined why so many cleanup workers at the site were getting sick and dying. In her coverage of the cleanup, reporter Jamie Satterfield learned that workers weren’t warned of the dangers of the coal ash and were, in fact, told the coal ash was perfectly safe.

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The state of Tennessee began its investigation into the treatment of the cleanup workers in early 2017. Satterfiled’s newspaper in July 2017 published its first series of stories on the probe.

During cleanup, Jacobs Engineering placed monitors around the site to monitor the toxicity of the ash. The company said it closely monitored levels of toxic chemicals at the site. It said the levels were never high enough to cause injuries. The site had levels of chemicals below the EPA’s set level of permissible exposure, the company’s lawyers said.

But on Wednesday, Muse, one of the workers at the site, testified about how Jacobs Engineering tampered with the monitors.

The company would order workers to wash coal ash from the stationary monitors and keep the area around them wet, which would lower the toxicity of the test results. Workers also captured secret video of Jacobs Engineering staffers banging out ash from the cartridges of the monitors placed around the site to monitor the toxicity of the ash, the News Sentinel reported.

 

Aftermath of the December 22, 2008, coal ash spill at TVA’s Kingston coal plant in Roane County, Tennessee. CREDIT: TVA
Aftermath of the December 22, 2008, coal ash spill at TVA’s Kingston coal plant in Roane County, Tennessee. CREDIT: TVA

During the trial, the jury will be asked to decide whether the toxic chemicals at the site were capable of causing the workers to get seriously ill.

“The workers are claiming that they have been harmed,” Sidney Gilreath, a personal injury attorney who has worked on similar cases, told 10News. “And they are sick, there’s no question about that. The question is did the working in the fly ash cause that harm.”

Because many of the plaintiffs have different illnesses, he said it will be more difficult to show Jacobs Engineering is liable for the deaths and illnesses.

The trial is expected to last for several weeks.