Spouses, supporters of coal ash cleanup workers want TVA to fire contractor, provide health insurance

A home is shown Dec. 22, 2008, near the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County after the failure of a dike that unleashed more than 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash slurry. (Photo by J. Miles Cary/News Sentinel)
A home is shown Dec. 22, 2008, near the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County after the failure of a dike that unleashed more than 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash slurry. (Photo by J. Miles Cary/News Sentinel)

KNOXVILLE - Nearly 11 years after America's worst coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority is still having to deal with the legacy of the disaster and those who cleaned it up.

With dozens of supporters standing behind them, spouses and other supporters of former contract workers who claim they were injured cleaning up the spill appealed to the TVA board Wednesday to do more to aid the hundreds of workers who removed more than 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly ash that spilled into the Emory and Clinch River from a broken TVA dike at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant in 2008.

"Every worker is hurting from this ash spill," said Betty Johnson, whose husband was employed by Jacobs Engineering Group which TVA hired nearly a decade ago to clean up to Kingston spill. "My husband had dreams of playing golf and fishing in retirement, and now he is afraid to go more than a mile because he can barely get his breath and he suffers regularly from pain and rashes on his body."

Johnson and two other spouses of other Jacobs employees who claim they were injured from the coal ash cleanup urged TVA to provide them health insurance and to quit using Jacobs for contract work.

photo Supporters of those who claim they were injured in the clean up of the coal ash spill at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant stand in support of one of the spouses of the workers who appealed to the TVA board Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, for health insurance for the affected workers.

"Do not let these hard working people be treated as collateral damage and let them fall between the cracks cleaning up your mess," said Jane Clark, whose husband also claims he was injured working for Jacobs.

Last November, a jury ruled that Jacobs had failed to take proper health precautions and misled workers about the health risks associated with exposure to coal fly ash. The plaintiffs alleged that exposure to the coal ash caused a variety of health issues and illnesses, including in some cases death.

Jacobs and the employees suing the company are now engaged in mediation for a monetary settlement. TVA is not a party to that lawsuit, although it may have to indemnify Jacobs for some of any damages it ultimately pays the former workers suing the company.

After hearing from more than a dozen critics of TVA's cleanup approach during a 2 1/2-hour listening session here, TVA Chairman James "Skip" Thompson said he appreciated the concerns of those who are suffering health problems but said the issue is now a legal matter for the court to resolve.

"I want to express our heartfelt sympathy for those who are ill," Thompson said. "The legal process is ongoing and we must respect the legality of that process. We are certainly committed to the safety of all of those who work at TVA's facilities and to the public and we intend to do the right thing."

Jacobs continues to do other work for TVA. Jeff Lyash, the current CEO for TVA, and his predecessor, Bill Johnson, said Jacobs has been an experienced contractor that has worked on a variety of engineering and cleanup projects across the country.

But critics of Jacobs called upon TVA to severe its contracts with Jacobs, while others said the coal ash spill underscores the need for TVA to move away from coal-fired power generation, which supplied a majority of TVA's power three decades ago.

"We are deeply troubled - indeed outraged - by the treatment of those workers who labored faithfully under TVA contractor Jacobs Engineering to clean up the enormous mess at the Kingston fossil plant," said John Stewart, a former TVA employee who is a member of the Interfaith Worker Justice Coalition. "The fundamentals of worker safety were callously disregarded by TVA."

Barbara Mott, the daughter-in-law for former TVA General Manager Aubrey "Red" Wagner who led TVA under five different U.S. presidents, said Jacobs showed itself to be "unreliable and deceitful" and questioned why TVA used the contractor.

"When you outsource your problems, are you outsourcing your values?" she asked the board.

TVA has spent nearly than $1 billion to clean up the Kingston coal ash spill and compensate many of those harmed by the accident. The utility is also spending billions of dollars more to replace all of its wet ash storage like what it used at the Kingston ash ponds with more environmentally sound dry ash storage.

TVA also has shut down more than half of of the 59 coal units it once operated, cutting its share of power from coal to less than a third of what it once was and cutting its carbon emissions by 55% from 2005 levels.

But those concerned with carbon emissions contributing to global climate change appealed to TVA to scrap all of its coal plants.

"I hope you will look at public health, not just cheap rates," said Dr. Mary Headrick, a retired physician who ran for U.S. Congress in the 3rd congressional district in 2012.

TVA directors will meet Thursday to adopt a new 20-year power plan that will phase out two more coal plant and could add up to 14 gigawatts of solar power by 2038. But the agency still expects to get about a third or more of its power from natural gas and coal over the next two decades.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

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