Thursday, July 27, 2017

Tennessee coal-ash cleanup workers sue, say they weren't warned about toxic substances

A worker at the Kingston spill cleanup
(Knoxville News Sentinel photo)
Nine years after the biggest coal-ash spill in U.S. history, more than 50 of the cleanup workers or surviving family members are suing Jacobs Engineering, the company tapped by the Tennessee Valley Authority to handle the cleanup. At least 17 workers have died, more are dying, and they say it's because of exposure to toxic chemicals they were never warned about.

The spill happened in December 2008 when a dike broke at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant, "dumping 5 million cubic yards of sludge into the Emory River and across 300 acres of the Swan Pond community of Roane County," Jamie Satterfield reports for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Some workers were even exposed to radioactive material left over from work at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The Environmental Protection Agency knew the sludge, and the fly ash it turned into when dried, was filled with dangerous metals and chemicals, but workers say Jacobs supervisors told them it was safe. "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," Satterwhite reports. Meanwhile, vehicles leaving the site were extensively decontaminated so that no ash spread out into the community. The TVA told citizens in surrounding communities that the fly ash wouldn't hurt them, even as it "gave out air filters, paid for medical testing, handed out bottled water and held town hall meetings to calm the public. It also paid $27.8 million to landowners, some of them miles away from the spill site, and gave the Roane County coffers $43 million more."

Cleanup worker John Cox told Satterwhite he soon started coughing uncontrollably, and his doctor told him fly ash was responsible. But when Cox showed his supervisor his prescription for a respirator, the supervisor refused to give him one. One foreman said he thinks the TVA didn't want workers wearing masks because it would look bad to the public driving by. "They were very, very concerned about public appearance because so many people were watching this cleanup," heavy equipment operator Michael McCarthy said in his deposition for the lawsuit. "They did not want us out there creating concern by wearing respirators, dust masks, anything like that."

EPA relied on air monitors at the site to assure the public that everything was fine, but workers say Jacobs supervisors ordered them to water down the mounds of ash to fool the monitors, because high levels of ash could cause EPA to shut down the work site to investigate, endangering Jacobs' performance bonuses. Workers with personal air-monitor devices say they were never shown the readings, and that Jacobs supervisors often handpicked workers in less dusty areas to wear the monitors. TVA safety managers said in a deposition that they had no knowledge of tampering and that Jacobs was responsible for the monitoring process.

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