On the night of December 22. 2008, a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash pond broke, releasing 7.3 million tons of coal ash onto 300 nearby acres and into local waterways. No one was killed in the spill.
But the resulting cleanup of the toxic coal ash did result in the deaths of at least 50 of the 900 workers who worked the cleanup site. The workers were not given proper protection during the cleanup and were thus exposed to the radioactive and highly toxic waste.
It’s a little known tale of corporate violence.
Jamie Satterfield knows the story well, having covered it for the Knoxville News Sentinel. She left the paper last year and is now reporting for the Tennessee Lookout.
There was a safe way to clean up the spill but TVA and its contractor, Jacobs Engineering, did not protect the workers with proper safety equipment.
“First thing, they should have not lied to these workers and told them that that coal ash is safe to eat,” Satterfield told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month.
Who told them that?
“Jacobs Engineering. There is no dispute or debate. They told the workers that coal ash was safe enough to eat, that they could eat a pound of it a day and not get sick.”
Jacobs doesn’t deny it?
“They don’t deny it. They say – that was hyperbole. But they should have told the workers the truth. Beyond that, what would have saved the lives and the health of these workers is a respirator. An N95 Covid mask would have prevented them from inhaling these radioactive particles. Some skin protection, a Tyvek suit, waterproof coveralls.”
“When TVA started shipping this Kingston ash to Alabama, Alabama measured the radioactivity. It came in hot. It came in way over their guidelines. The men and women in Alabama who were unloading these rail cars were in full protection. Respiratory protection and skin protection. That’s all the TVA would have to do to protect this workforce. And they refused.”
Why did they refuse?
“The public in the area of the TVA plant had been assured that this coal ash was no more dangerous than dirt. If the public in Kingston had seen these workers wearing protective gear, they might have asked questions about these assurances that they were getting from the TVA. That’s one belief as to why this lie was told.”
“Another reason is that nobody, including the EPA, paid attention to or regulated coal ash in any way. There was no coal ash regulation at the time of the spill. The worst thing that could have happened would be for the true nature and danger of the coal ash to have been exposed. Then there would have been regulation. They had a high motivation to hide the toxicity and danger of coal ash. The workers were expendable in this endeavor. They wanted it cleaned up quick and fast without controversy. They kept these workers in hard hats and vests and every now and then they got goggles.”
“They were required to at least give these workers some decontamination facilities such as showers. They never did that. So the workers carried the coal dust home. And a good number of the wives of these workers suffered breast cancer. I know of two cases in which children of the workers developed breathing conditions.”
“The public needs to know that with impunity, the TVA and Jacobs Engineering were allowed to sacrifice an entire workforce for the sake of expediency and greed. Not one single authority in the country – not OSHA, not EPA and not the Congress – have done a damn thing about it. No sanction against Jacobs Engineering or TVA.”
“TVA submitted a report to OSHA saying that these workers were kept in protective gear. That was a lie. They were never put in protective gear. They claimed in this report that they interviewed 24 workers. None of them were interviewed. OSHA closed that file out without action.”
“On February 11, 2009, someone in Tennessee with knowledge of coal ash was watching a television newscast on the clean up and saw that these workers were not wearing any type of protective gear. That man filed a formal complaint with OSHA. He knew that coal ash had radioactive material and the workers needed to be protected. Tennessee OSHA, instead of shutting down the site, called TVA and told TVA – we just got a complaint, investigate it and let us know.”
How did you come to this issue?
“Because I cover the court system and trials, I often encounter lawyers who are pitching cases to me,” Satterfield said. “In 2017, I was going to meet a Knoxville attorney on a different matter and as I was walking up to his office, a lady I now know was his investigator – her name is Stephanie Johnson – she was standing outside the building. I had never met her. I didn’t know her. And as I walked up, she said – people are dying and you need to do something about it.”
“I looked at her like she was kind of crazy. I walked on into the office. And as I got into the lawyer’s office, I said – clearly, you all want to tell me something. The two of them began showing me photographs of the clean up workers at this 2008 spill at the TVA’s Kingston plant. And they were up to their eyeballs in this stuff without any kind of protective gear. I was told then that a lawsuit had been filed in 2013 by a handful of these workers. The lawsuit was tossed out at one point, then revised in the Sixth Circuit. It went back to the trial judge. And they were really just beginning the discovery process. At that time they represented roughly 70 workers.”
“Of those, 12 were dead. But they suspected that there were other workers who were out there who were sick but did not associate it with the coal ash exposure. They asked if the Knoxville News Sentinel would be interested in investigating what happened.”
“And I said I’ll let you know. Give me some names of workers. I asked for six names of workers who don’t live near each other, and don’t know each other. I did not want workers who were cooking up stories.”
“They gave me six names. I called the first three. I was satisfied after talking with each of those three. I was satisfied that their stories had enough differences. I did not feel as if they were giving me a party line. I found them credible although I had a whole lot of investigation left to do.”
“On the fourth call, the worker initially hung up on me. He called me back about twenty minutes later and told me that he was in need of a double lung transplant. He was not able to work since he left the cleanup site and that he was getting ready to kill himself when I called him. I was shaken by that.”
“I completed his interview. I went ahead and interviewed the other two. And I felt like we had a story.”
“I went to my boss at the time, Jack McElroy. He then was the executive editor. He agreed to allow me time and money to begin an investigation. That’s how I got into it.”
When did the spill happen?
“It happened December 22, 2008 in the middle of the night. The coal ash was stored in these pits in the ground. And they were stacking the coal ash in order to use less land. They would stack it and stack it. And there was very little structure around it.”
Where were these pits?
“It was in Kingston, Tennessee at the TVA plant there. Basically, the wall of one of these pits gave way and as a result, 7.3 million tons of coal ash spilled out. It covered 300 acres of land, knocked houses off their foundations, covered vehicles, went into the Clinch and Emory Rivers, killed fish. The spill itself did not kill people, thank God. It was not a real populated area and it was in the middle of the night, so nobody was on the road. But it was a major deal.”
“TVA was helicoptering in their executives, the Governor came, members of the Congressional delegation came, it was all over the news. It looked like a moonscape. The Coast Guard was called in because the coal ash spilled into the waters. They had to shut down the waterways. And those are public drinking water sources.”
“The TVA uses contract labor for almost all of its handling of coal ash. They started summoning workers from union halls and various trucking organizations. Anybody who was nearby and could operate heavy equipment was being called. Hundreds of workers responded in the middle of the night, jumped inside these vehicles and started pushing this stuff to stop it.”
This initial operation was to stop the spread of the coal ash. There was a separate operation to clean up the mess.
“TVA contracted with Jacobs Engineering in February 2009 for the cleanup.”
Was TVA ever sanctioned for the way they operated that site?
“They were fined by the EPA and by the state environmental authority. The state determined that the spill was TVA’s fault. The state determined that the TVA did not use good engineering practices, that they were aware of leakage and problems with these pits and ignored it.”
We have been steeped in the idea that public power is generally more responsive and accountable than private power corporations. Is that your experience with TVA?
“Absolutely not. Because the TVA enjoys quasi-governmental status, they are protected. Duke Energy had a similar spill in 2014, not nearly as massive as the TVA spills, and they were criminally charged. They were forced to clean up and repair the damage. But in Tennessee, TVA reigns supreme.”
The spill itself didn’t kill anybody. But the cleanup did. What is the body count on the cleanup?
“I have logged about 50 worker deaths. And there are over 200 that are sick with various ailments related to coal ash exposure. At the critical phase of the cleanup, where they needed to get it out of the rivers and stop it from moving, there were 900 workers on the job.”
Out of those 900, how many are suing?
About 240 are suing.
Who are they suing?
“They are suing Jacobs Engineering because at the time that the lawsuit was filed, it was believed, based on a string of court cases, that the TVA would claim immunity and be successful. One of the things about being a public power plant is that the EPA ceded authority of the cleanup to the polluter – in this case, TVA. Imagine that. You create a disaster and you are the authorized government entity to oversee the cleanup.”
“TVA hired Jacobs Engineering as the project manager for the cleanup. I do not want anybody to think that the TVA was not involved in a supervisory capacity at that cleanup site. They had personnel there also. And they worked hand in hand with Jacobs Engineering.”
TVA was not sued because they had this immunity?
“That was the belief of the attorneys who first filed the lawsuit. Because Jacobs Engineering was the primary contractor over the workforce, they were the appropriate entity to sue.”
You would think that Jacobs Engineering’s lawyers would raise this issue in court. Have they raised the issue?
“They have. What they have claimed both at the beginning of the litigation and just recently is derivative immunity. They are saying because we were working under the TVA, we have the same immunity that TVA has. They have not been successful with that argument.”
“The courts have determined that there is evidence that Jacobs Engineering breached its contract with the TVA. The Supreme Court, in its 2019 Thacker decision, stripped the TVA of blanket immunity, and said that TVA could be sued if certain criteria are met.”
“In the spill case, the Sixth Circuit just recently ruled that the TVA would not have been immune under circumstances that we now know and therefore Jacobs is not immune.”
[For the complete q/a format Interview with Jamie Satterfield, see 36 Corporate Crime Reporter 25(12), June 20, 2022, print edition only.]