More than 50 coal ash spill cleanup workers and workers’ survivors are suiing Jacobs Engineering for unsafe working conditions that they allege lead to sickness and death at the cleanup site. Angela Gosnell/News Sentinel
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.
Or why their safety gear consisted of nothing more than short-sleeved T-shirts, jeans, work boots and vinyl reflective vests.
Now, nearly a decade later, at least 17 of those workers are dead, dozens more are dying, and the conditions under which they worked are being blamed.
“I call them ‘the expendables,’” said Janie Clark, wife of a worker in failing health. “These men were treated like collateral damage, and they fell between the cracks in this toxic place.”
Working in superfund site
Coal ash is dangerous. The Environmental Protection Agency said so after a dike gave way at the TVA Kingston Fossil Fuel Power in December 2008, dumping 5 million cubic yards of sludge into the Emory River and across 300 acres of the Swan Pond community of Roane County.
The EPA declared the area a superfund site full of toxic metals and chemicals. The list was long even in the early days after the spill: arsenic, beryllium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, zinc, cadmium, selenium, thallium, antimony, silver and vanadium oxide. It would grow longer.
Worse, when that sludge started drying out, it turned to fly ash – dust laden with those chemicals in concentrated forms and in tiny particles that once inhaled would lodge deep in the lungs.
This photo depicts unprotected workers mired in wet coal ash sludge. (Photo: Submitted)
Workers weren’t warned of the dangers, though. In fact, they were told the coal ash was perfectly safe.
They ate atop it with only bottled water to clean themselves. Their only decontamination unit at the end of the day was a bucket of water and a brush for their boots. When they asked for dust masks, they were denied, and when they complained of health problems, they were mocked.
Now, more than 50 sickened workers and workers’ survivors are suing Jacobs Engineering, the $12 billion-a-year California company that handled the cleanup for TVA, in federal court. The case is set for trial in 2018.
“We will not discuss nor respond to direct testimony as we are not a party in the lawsuit,” he said. “We will not make statements that may contradict what the judge rules as valid testimony and arguments in the case. We will not try the case in the media.”
Attorney Jim Sanders with the law firm Neal & Harwell, one of two representing Jacobs Engineering and its supervisors, also declined to comment.
“Trial is where we’re going to openly discuss these issues, so it would be inappropriate for me to talk about them now,” Sanders told USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee.
The dangers of coal ash
The EPA concluded coal ash presents a high risk of cancer for one out of 50 Americans living near coal ash landfills and slurry ponds in 2007 – months before the Kingston spill. But TVA insisted in the early days of the spill that the waste was safe.
A TVA representative told 60 Minutes in 2009 she would take a swim in the mucky Emory River. She retracted that statement soon after, though. The EPA posted signs telling people not to enter the river and that wet coal ash was dangerous if it got on the skin or inside the body. The Coast Guard shut the river down and erected barriers to keep the ash from spreading.