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#ThisIsAppalachia: Coal Ash Workers

Adam Hughes, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment| March 23, 2020

It’s been over 11 years since a dike ruptured at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant, sending over 7.3 million tons of coal ash slurry to cover houses in Roane County, Tennessee.  This tragedy, the largest coal ash disaster in United States history, required TVA to purchase 180 contaminated properties and necessitated a cleanup that wasn’t complete until 2015.  However, the fight for justice isn’t over for the workers of the cleanup — over 40 have died and over 400 suffer from chronic illnesses developed since they worked in the ash.

“Coal ash” is a catchall name for the contaminants left after coal is burned to produce electricity.  Heavy metals buried in the earth over millions of years are incorporated into coal and unearthed during the mining process.  As a result, coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and a host of other elements known to affect human health.

Action by families and allies, December 23, 2019 at Jacobs Engineering in West Knoxville, Tennessee.

TVA hired the Jacobs Engineering firm to manage the clean-up, and even committed to paying Jacobs’ legal bills with ratepayer money if Jacobs were to be sued for coal ash exposure.  From the beginning, Jacobs’ actions showed a disregard for the health and safety of their contractors. Workers were denied masks and basic protective clothing, even when they were prescribed by a doctor.  They didn’t get a shower or changing room at the beginning or end of their shift, despite an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) directive — in fact, some workers were offered only a cat litter box full of water to wash in.  Workers claim they received no training in proper coal ash handling, and some even allege that managers manipulated test results to downplay the level of exposure workers faced.

As these workers have fallen sick, they’ve taken up a legal fight for health care and compensation, and in November, 2008, a jury found that Jacobs Engineering breached its duty to provide proper protection.  However, the verdict resulted in no compensation; the affected workers must prove that their illnesses resulted from coal ash exposure. They claim that Jacobs isn’t negotiating in good faith to reach a settlement to provide for their care, leaving the possibility of a lengthy trial that workers may not be able to wait for.

Thankfully, Tennessee activists have stood alongside the workers and their families as they continue to seek justice. To commemorate the 11th anniversary of the spill, a coalition of organizations stood in solidarity outside Jacobs’ office to remind the public of the lingering consequences. Groups like the Sierra Club have supported families to travel to Washington, DC and testify in front of the EPA that stronger environmental protections are needed, in the face of an industry push to weaken monitoring of ash stored in landfills.

A similar struggle is taking shape down the road in Anderson County, where TVA announced that they’d shutter the Bull Run Fossil Plant by the end of 2023.  Residents worry that the remnants of the coal ash pit will be a lingering concern for the community, threatening their health for generations and blocking a just economic transition.  The current ash pit sits below the groundwater table, and testing suggests that contamination is entering the river. However, the only suggested alternative to leaving the unlined ash pit in place would be another coal ash landfill on an adjacent property, which would require redirecting over a half mile of local stream.  Residents have expressed concerns about this plan at a series of community meetings, and the Anderson County Commission is acting to ensure they have a final say in the future of their community.

For more information on the coal ash workers’ story: Adam Hughes adam@socm.org