This is one of those horrific stories that you think must have come out of the 19th century or early 20th century.
Just before Christmas in 2008, a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant in Roane County, Tennessee, gave way, carrying away houses and smothering 300 acres of land under a billion gallons of coal ash slurry, a by-product of coal combustion to produce electricity. It was the nation’s worst coal ash spill.
Construction workers from East Tennessee and across the nation responded, but without any protection or training, despite the fact that coal ash contains “a concentrated stew of toxins, including arsenic, radioactive material, mercury and lead.”
Today, “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.”
This tragedy wasn’t an oversight on Jacobs’ part, nor a failure of workers to follow the rules, according to Knoxville News Sentinal’s Jamie Satterfield and an investigation by USA TODAY Network-Tennessee.
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.
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.
No one in authority at the clean-up site – including TVA and Jacobs safety managers – had any training in the dangers of coal ash or how to protect workers from it. [emphasis added]
“These were just blue collar workers who showed up for work and they trusted what they were told and they did their jobs, and now they are dying for it.” – Jamie Satterfield, Knoxville News Sentinel
After they started getting sick, workers took videos of mishandling of test samples by Jacobs technicians and supervisors telling workers the reason they couldn’t breathe was pollen in the air.
It gets worse: “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.” Workers were told they could eat a pound of coal ash a day without harming them.
The workers sued Jacobs Engineering, the contractor TVA put in charge of cleaning up the spill and keeping workers safe. The good news is (if there is any good news here):
A federal jury on Wednesday ruled a global contractor tasked with keeping disaster clean-up workers safe instead endangered them – some fatally.
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. The panel ruled Jacobs failed to adhere to its contract with TVA, failed to “exercise reasonable care” in keeping workers safe and, in its failures, likely caused the poisoning by coal ash of the laborers, many of whom live in East Tennessee.
The verdict means the workers now will get a chance to seek damages, including money to cover medical testing for all laborers who worked at the site and medical treatment for themselves and their families. Many of the workers’ family members also are believed to have been sickened by exposure to the coal ash the laborers brought home each night on their skin and clothing.
As Satterfield said in a Nashville Public Radio interview: “These were just blue collar workers who showed up for work and they trusted what they were told and they did their jobs and they did it well and they cleaned up this mess that TVA made in the Roan County community, and now they are dying for it.”