It's been a decade since the Kingston Coal Ash Spill became the worst disaster of its kind in U.S. history. More than 1 billion gallons of the byproduct — made by burning coal to produce electricity — poured out over hundreds of acres in Roane County.
Now the workers tasked with cleaning up the massive mess are suing the company that hired them. Hundreds have been sickened and dozens have died.
Investigative journalist Jamie Satterfield with the Knoxville News Sentinel has been covering their story. She spoke with WPLN's Jason Moon Wilkins.
Can you give us a quick reminder about this incident and just how devastating it was?
JS: Well, in December 2008 at TVA Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant, a dike broke, and coal ash smothered 300 acres of land, took out houses and, immediately after the dike break, workers began getting called up from various union halls across the nation to come and clean it up.
That's where your reporting has really focused — on that massive cleanup effort and the impact that has had on workers. What was your indication that there is something going on there?
JS: we had a lawsuit — it was fairly bare bones — that was filed federal court, and it named a company Jacobs Engineering. I took an interest in it and started with talking to a few workers who were named in this suit. What I discovered was that representatives of both TVA and Jacobs Engineering repeatedly, repeatedly told these workers that coal ash was not dangerous, that it couldn't hurt them.
Now, there are over 200 workers who are sickened, all with common ailments related to coal ash. And I've got over two dozen now that are dead. We had one die just recently.
In your most recent article about this in the suit that's being brought against Jacobs Engineering, who led the cleanup effort, one of the managers for Jacobs Engineering apparently lied under oath.
JS: Well, certainly, that was a stunner. This was shocking because there had been depositions in this case from various people involved. And one of them was Sean Healey, and he was the safety guy. He specifically denied the workers claim that they had been told that they could eat a pound of coal ash a day and be fine. He categorically denied that in his deposition.
Well, these lawyers for the coal ash workers ... [were] able to find an email from that same fellow, Sean Healey, in October 2009 — a few months after these workers started working — in which he specifically told his fellow managers to tell the public, to tell the EPA and to tell the workers that they could eat a pound of coal ash a day.
How does the nation's largest utility avoid responsibility in this, and why aren't they named in the lawsuit?
JS: Well, there is a legal reason they're not named: TVA is a quasi-governmental agency. And because of that, various governmental immunity laws come into play. So, it's a lot harder to go after TVA.
However, what I have discovered is that TVA was more concerned about public perception than they were about worker safety. That's a fact. But since my reporting started, they have now put up warning signs for their own workers to say that longterm exposure to coal ash can cause cancer and lung illnesses and lots of other diseases, and that workers should wear proper protection when they're around it.
You know, my coal ash workers back in 2008, in that spill, they certainly would have loved to have seen one of those signs.
Jamie Satterfield is a reporter for The Knoxville News Sentinel. You can read her extensive reporting on the Kingston coal ash spill and its cleanup at knoxnews.com.
Editor's note: TVA responded to the claim about warning signs saying that they have not posted coal ash warnings across the Kingston Fossil Plant. "The signage at Kingston is posted on a silo where dry coal ash is stored in a confined space awaiting transport. This signage is not related to outdoor exposure." The new sign on the silo was install per OSHA requirements, TVA says.