Sickened coal ash cleanup workers seek justice from TVA contractor

Workers without masks or protective suits waded in coal ash-contaminated water and moved coal ash using leafblowers in the wake of the 2008 TVA coal ash disaster. Many are now seeking justice in court for illnesses they believe are related to coal ash exposure. (Images are stills from this United Mountain Defense video from January 2009.)

At the same time the Trump administration is seeking to roll back regulations designed to protect people and the environment from toxic coal ash, hundreds of workers who cleaned up the nation's largest-ever coal ash spill and claim it sickened them are still waiting for their day in court.

A team of attorneys has filed lawsuits in federal court on behalf of 53 dead and sick workers against Jacobs Engineering, a Fortune 500 government contractor hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to clean up following the spill of over a billion gallons of coal ash from a holding pond at the federally-owned corporation's Kingston power plant in eastern Tennessee on Dec. 22, 2008. The spill inundated a nearby residential community and contaminated the Emory and Clinch rivers with coal ash, which is laden with heavy metals, radioactive elements, and other health-damaging contaminants. The disaster also spurred the federal regulations now targeted for rollback.

After the USA Today Network-Tennessee published an investigation into conditions at the cleanup site, more workers came forward with similar stories of lung disease, cancers, and skin conditions. Since then, the attorneys involved in the case filed a new lawsuit in state court on behalf of an additional 180 dead or sick workers.

The federal lawsuit is expected to get underway later this year. It was delayed in part due to a fire at the offices of the plaintiffs' attorneys, the cause of which remains unknown.

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wanted the cleanup workers to be given protective gear, it met resistance from Jacobs Engineering and The Shaw Group, the Louisiana-based government contractor hired by TVA for technical advice on the project. Workers say the companies downplayed the dangers of coal ash and seemed concerned about alarming the public.

In the end, the EPA signed off on a safety plan that did not require workers to be given protective suits and that made it difficult for them to qualify for a respirator or even a dust mask — and the companies resisted implementing even that.

"Jacobs' site safety manager, Tom Bock, and TVA site supervisor Gary McDonald both have admitted refusing workers' requests for respirators and dust masks in violation of the plan's rules on the approval process," the USA Today Network-Tennessee reported.

Warnings were given

The news network's reporting on the Kingston cleanup recounted the dangerous working conditions at the spill site, with tornados of coal ash blowing across the landscape and workers eating atop coal ash heaps with only bottled water to clean themselves. However, it did not get all of the facts right. This is how the first story in the series opened:

It was the nation's largest coal ash spill, and it would bring a stampede of government supervisors, environmental advocates, lawyers, journalists, politicians and contractors to Kingston, Tenn.

But not one of them asked why the hundreds of blue-collar laborers cleaning up the mess weren't wearing even basic dust masks.

It's not true that no one visiting the disaster site inquired into the workers' safety. Within a week of the spill, United Mountain Defense (UMD) — an environmental nonprofit that works in coal-impacted communities and was involved in the Swan Pond community near TVA's Kingston plant before the spill occurred — tried to draw official attention to the fact that workers at the site were not using protective gear. They brought up the issue at the first official public meeting about the spill, held six days after the disaster.

Facing South reported on UMD's concerns the following day; the Knoxville News Sentinel, part of the USA Today Network-Tennessee, linked to the story in its roundup of coverage of the disaster. Titled "'IT'S LIKE 9/11': Official inaction endangers residents, workers following Tenn. coal ash disaster," the report quoted Chris Irwin, a self-described "tree-hugging attorney" who was working with UMD at the time:

UMD volunteers report that cleanup workers do not appear to be wearing protective respiratory equipment despite the known hazards of fly ash. For example, a Material Safety Data Sheet for coal ash [pdf] calls for employees handling the material to wear NIOSH respiratory protection.

"They're treating it like snow," Irwin says. "They're not taking the most basic elementary precautions. It's like 9/11, where they had unprotected workers traipsing through toxic dust."

When Facing South called the Joint Information Center and asked who is doing the cleanup work and what protective gear they'd been provided, the person answering the phone said she would have someone look into it and call back. 

No one called back. UMD volunteers continued to document hazardous conditions at the site, including cleanup workers laboring without protective gear, and distributed information about the dangers of coal ash. But it wasn't easy, as volunteers with the group faced harassment and even arrest. Irwin has no patience for claims that no one in charge knew about the hazards.

"Those workers were not accidentally exposed," he tells Facing South. "They were murdered for TVA's P.R. campaign."

Jacobs Engineering has been embroiled in controversy before related to its government contracting work. The company, which moved its headquarters from California to Dallas in 2016, paid the federal government $35 million in 2000 in connection with allegations that it improperly charged overhead costs to various government contracts.

The five-year cleanup of the spill cost TVA ratepayers $1 billion. Jacobs Engineering wants ratepayers to foot its legal bills as well.