Knoxville News Sentinal’s Jamie Satterfield, the investigative reporter who has been following the story about cleanup workers who died and were sickened by their exposure to coal ash in the cleanup of the massive spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant in Tennessee, was interviewed yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered.
You can listen to the entire interview here.
What my investigation showed was that Jacobs Engineering, this firm that was put in charge of the cleanup, they not only did not tell the workers the danger of coal ash, they didn’t explain to them what was in it. And in fact, they lied to them. They told them that they could safely eat a pound of coal ash, which again is full of toxins, every day and be safe. That’s absurd. Even the American Coal Ash Association doesn’t make that claim. And they also – they pressured the EPA. The EPA wanted these workers in Tyvek suits and to have respiratory masks and other respiratory protection. And Jacobs and TVA pushed back on the EPA. And then later, as some of these workers started getting sick on the job site and began to question the safety of the coal ash, if they demanded respiratory protection, they were fired.
- Aside from the obvious tragedy of workers get sick and dying due to lack or training or protective equipment, what we’re seeing here is basic job blackmail: You want a job, don’t complain and don’t ask questions.”
Being given a choice between your job or your life is a phenomenon all too common in the American workplace. Whenever I write about a worker getting killed in a trench collapse or from falling off a roof — even when they knew it was dangerous — I get letters saying “He should have just quit and found another job.”
Well, when you have a family to support, house payments to meet and kids to feed it’s not always so easy to get in the boss’s face and just go out and find another job — especially when there’s someone happy to do the job when you get fired. It’s a choice no worker should have to make.
- As the NPR interviewer Ailsa Chang notes, Satterfield wasn’t just a reporter, she was also involved in helping the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. As Satterfield explained:
These workers – to explain, many of them are from right here in my own community of east Tennessee, but many of them are from across the country as well. And so when I initially started the reporting, I was able to find workers and send them to the lawyers. And the other thing that I did was anytime that I discovered in my reporting, I would – once we published, then I would send that to them.
These days, when so much of the main media is focused the big national stories, and few papers can afford to support investigative journalism, and labor reporters are a thing of the past, there are still hard-working (and low paid) journalists out there who are not only bringing workers’ stories to life, but also bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.
It is reporters like Jamie Satterfield, or Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, or Jim Morris at the Center for Public Integrity, or Audrey Dutton at the Idaho Statesman, or the team at the Tampa Bay Times, or organizations like ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting that are — as pioneering medical researcher and advocate Irving Selikoff said — putting the tears back into the data.