Chattanooga Times Free Press
THE HUMAN TOLL
Lawsuit says Kingston coal ash spill workers treated as ‘expendables’
It was the nation’s largest coal ash spill, and it would bring a stampede of government supervisors, environmental advocates, lawyers, journalists, politicians and contractors to Kingston, Tenn.
But not one of them asked why the hundreds of blue-collar laborers cleaning up the mess weren’t wearing basic dust masks.
Or why their safety gear consisted of nothing more than short-sleeved T-shirts, jeans, work boots and vinyl reflective vests.
Now, nearly a decade later, at least 17 of those workers are dead, dozens more are dying, and the conditions under which they worked are being blamed.
“I call them ‘the expendables,’” said Janie Clark, wife of a worker in failing health. “These men were treated like collateral damage, and they fell between the cracks in this toxic place.”
WORKING IN SUPERFUND SITE
Coal ash is dangerous. The Environmental Protection Agency said so after a dike gave way at the TVA Kingston Fossil plant in December 2008, dumping 5 million cubic yards of sludge into the Emory River and across 300 acres of the Swan Pond community of Roane County.
The EPA declared the area a Superfund site full of toxic metals and chemicals. The list was long even in the early days after the spill: arsenic, beryllium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, zinc, cadmium, selenium, thallium, antimony, silver and vanadium oxide. It would grow longer.
Worse, when that sludge started drying out, it turned to fly ash — dust laden with those chemicals in concentrated forms and in tiny particles that once inhaled would lodge deep in the lungs.
Workers weren’t warned of the dangers, though. In fact, they said they were told the coal ash was perfectly safe.
They ate atop it with only bottled water to clean themselves. 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.
Now, more than 50 sickened workers and workers’ survivors are suing Jacobs Engineering, the $12 billion-a-year California company that handled the cleanup for TVA, in federal court. The case is set for trial in 2018.
TVA spokesman Scott Brooks declined to answer a detailed list of questions submitted by USA Today Network-Tennessee.
“We will not discuss nor respond to direct testimony as we are not a party in the lawsuit,” he said. “We will not make statements that may contradict what the judge rules as valid testimony and arguments in the case. We will not try the case in the media.”
Attorney Jim Sanders with the law firm Neal & Harwell, one of two representing Jacobs Engineering and its supervisors, also declined to comment.
“Trial is where we’re going to openly discuss these issues, so it would be inappropriate for me to talk about them now,” Sanders said.
THE DANGERS OF COAL ASH
The EPA concluded coal ash presents a high risk of cancer for one out of 50 Americans living near coal ash landfills and slurry ponds in 2007 — months before the Kingston spill. But TVA insisted in the early days of the spill that the waste was safe.
A TVA representative told “60 Minutes” in 2009 she would take a swim in the mucky Emory River. She retracted that statement soon after, though. The EPA posted signs telling people not to enter the river and that wet coal ash was dangerous if it got on the skin or inside the body. The Coast Guard shut the river down and erected barriers to keep the ash from spreading.
TVA assured citizens in surrounding communities that fly ash from the site wasn’t polluting the air in toxic quantities, but 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.
But little attention was paid to “the expendables.”
USA Today NetworkTennessee interviewed former employees, watched undercover videos, reviewed sworn testimony from TVA and Jacobs supervisors, consulted experts, analyzed government documents and read thousands of pages of court records to assemble this report on the plight of these workers.
They were men such as Mike Shelton of Decatur, Tenn., who didn’t know anything about coal ash when he signed on to clean it up.
He reported to work in 2010 a healthy man. He died in 2015 after he was diagnosed with lung and adrenal cancer. His wife of nearly three decades watched his symptoms progress even as he continued working in the stuff she believes killed him.
“I told him, you need to get away from that place,” Angie Shelton said.
He died shortly after taking a layoff slip.
LACK OF TRAINING
Brad Green, a foreman on the cleanup site, knew that when you burned coal, you got ash. He didn’t know it could be dangerous.
“I grew up in a house burning coal,” Green said in a deposition. “So I had no idea there was anything wrong with coal fly ash. Never had heard anything about it before in my life.”
Yet Green was tapped to work as a foreman supervising hundreds of workers at the Kingston spill in December 2008.
Asked how much training he received about the dangers of coal ash, Green said, “Pretty much nothing.”
He wasn’t alone. TVA’s own managers at the cleanup area — dubbed “the exclusion zone” by TVA because of the dangers there — admitted in depositions they didn’t have any training either.
“The only training I got for (coal ash) was the required training for any employee to come on the Kingston site,” TVA’s Tom Heffernan said.
Coast Guard Strike Team member John Parker found TVA’s information on the dangers of coal ash so lacking, he carried out an internet search. It was only then, he said in sworn testimony, he learned coal ash was a stew of toxic chemicals that had been linked to disease and cancers. He said he took his own steps to protect his team members.
Michael McCarthy arrived at the site a few days after the spill happened, having answered a call from a union hall for a heavy equipment operator.
“There was no training at all,” McCarthy said in his deposition. “I mean, I’ve been on hazardous jobs, and we’ve always had, you know, some kind of sit-down of what we’re going to be handling, how to handle it. … Man, we got there, and they threw us in a dozer and said start pushing. It looked like Mars out there. It was crazy.”
BREATHING THE DUST
Attorney Frank Holleman, whose Southern Environmental Law Center has led the charge to hold utilities responsible in the years since the spill, was shocked to learn workers at the Kingston site weren’t provided respirators or dust masks.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” Holleman said. “Coal ash contains very harmful substances. We know that in general the policy is we don’t want people inhaling coal ash.”
Leo Francendese, who was part of the EPA’s boots on the ground in the days after the disaster, made that clear in a “60 Minutes” interview after the spill.
“In the wrong circumstances, coal ash is dangerous,” Francendese said. “Breathing it, that’s dangerous.”
But even as “60 Minutes” was filming its footage for a show in 2009, workers were inhaling ash every day.
“They called it ‘the Kingston crud,’” said Jeffrey Dwight Brewer, a 42-year-old worker and married father of three from New Market, Tenn. “When new men would come in on the job, they would be healthy like you. After a couple of weeks on the job, it sucked the life out of them. They would start the cough.”
John Cox, a Halls native and once a star trumpet player at the University of Tennessee, had strong lungs when he started working at the site. Before long, he couldn’t stop coughing. Antibiotics didn’t help. His doctor in Oak Ridge told him it was the fly ash that was making him sick.
“I said, ‘They told us the stuff won’t hurt us,’” Cox told his doctor. “He said, ‘Why, that stuff will kill you.’”
NO RESPIRATOR OR MASK
The doctor prescribed a respirator, but Cox said Jacobs’ Safety manager, Tom Bock, wouldn’t give him one. When Cox pushed for a simple painter’s mask, he was ordered to take a test, known as a “fit test,” to see if he could breathe comfortably while wearing a mask. He passed. Neither Jacobs nor TVA supplied him with a mask, though.
“I had to buy my own dust mask,” he said.
TVA’s Gary McDonald admitted a box of dust masks was sitting in a tool shed at the site but was ordered destroyed. The reasons are unclear. McDonald claimed a safety regulation changed, but no record of that could be found.
Foreman Green, who isn’t suing anyone but will be a key witness in the legal battle, testified in a deposition that Bock believed the workers “were all too fat” to wear dust masks and pass fit tests.
“I know I’m fat,” Green said. “I can work just as well as anybody else worked it.”
Another foreman later shared with Green his theory on why dust masks were taboo at the site.
‘(T)hey didn’t want people driving by seeing them out there wearing those dust masks,” Green said. “That was not an image they wanted the public to see. The public had a big lawsuit going over the fly ash and they didn’t want to add fuel to the fire.”
“They were very, very concerned about public appearance because so many people were watching this cleanup,” heavy equipment operator McCarthy said. “They did not want us out there creating concern by wearing respirators, dust masks, anything like that.”
Green remembered “ash twisters” churning up the dust every day.
“You could wipe the ash off with something, with a clean rag, to where they wasn’t nothing,” he said, “and five minutes after you shut the door in the truck, you could see them dust particles on the dash. And it was shiny, sparkly.”
The workers didn’t know it, but the toxic metals in the ash made it sparkle in the sunlight.
Environmental groups secretly filming from nearby woods later documented tornadoes of fly ash swirling all over the site during the five-year cleanup that cost ratepayers $1 billion.
Even workers inside enclosed vehicles found themselves breathing in coal ash.
“You would walk through wet (ash) and get in your vehicle, and it would get on the floor,” worker Craig Wilkinson said. “You’d turn on the heater, because it was cold out there, and it would dry that wet (ash) and you’d get the dust in the vehicle.”
EATING IN ‘EXCLUSION ZONE’
No cars, no trucks and no equipment could leave the exclusion zone without undergoing decontamination. TVA did not want coal ash spreading into the community via vehicles. The agency even built a $1 million car wash big enough for heavy equipment. Vehicles were washed twice — just to make sure no ash remained.
“It was a double car wash … that washed the bottom of your vehicle,” TVA’s Tom Heffernan said. “At the same time that’s happening, two civil projects employees are pressure washing your car, one on the left and one on the right, and you drive down … to the next station, and then you had a redundant station. … That’s how that worked.”
Workers, on the other hand, got a pan of water about the size of a large cat litter box and a brush to scrub their boots. They didn’t question the disparity. Bock insisted the ash was safe.
“I didn’t believe it was 100 percent safe, but every morning, (Bock) would get up there and say, ‘You can eat it,’” Green said.
The bosses were big on equipment safety, so much so that Heffernan set up what he called “Hogan’s Alley” — an area he filled with heavy equipment in which he would create safety violations and then test workers on whether they could find them. The managers also set up speed detectors to make sure equipment operators weren’t driving too fast on the massive site.
Cox, the former trumpet player, figured employers that committed to worker safety wouldn’t hide from him the dangers of the sludge and fly ash he was immersed in daily.
“You really didn’t think about the place being dangerous because they were so picky about things, like speed,” he said.
Workers initially were barred from bringing food onto the site, but that rule was soon abandoned. Instead, the workers were instructed to put a thin layer of gravel over a mound of coal ash and surround the area with what the laborers dubbed the “magic snow fence.” It was an orange mesh that stood about 3 feet high.
“That was a Kingston joke because they said anything on this side of the magic snow fence was good and clean,” worker Brewer remembered.
“All you had to clean off with is you could use bottled water to wash off your hands or use a hand sanitizer,” Cox said.
TVA and Jacobs bosses ate inside office trailers, dubbed “trailer city,” where the managers worked, a football field away from the exclusion zone.
If work stopped at the site, Jacobs’ performance bonuses were at risk, and nothing could stop the work as quickly as an EPA monitor showing high levels of fly ash in the air. The EPA relied on those test results to assure citizens in nearby communities that all was fine.
“They would shut us down,” foreman Green said. “So we had to make sure that we kept the dust away from them air monitors or kept it, you know, to a minimum.”
Workers were ordered to water down the mounds of ash near the stationary air monitors placed around the site.
“They would be calling me, ‘get a water truck over here, get a water truck over here,’” Green said.
“We were told through the chain of command,” Brewer said, “take the (water) cannon, blow that monitor off, wash them trees off, to get all that off it.”
Workers outfitted with personal air-monitoring devices were never shown all the readings, even when they demanded them, and even though TVA’s site safety plan required Jacobs to provide those readings to the laborers.
They contend Jacobs handpicked who wore the devices based on where on the cleanup site they were working — the less “dusty” the better.
They also allege Jacobs often doled out the personal monitors on rainy days, when rain settled the ash. Jacobs also ordered the stationary monitors collected for testing after rain, according to deposition testimony.
On separate occasions, two workers secretly filmed Jacobs staffers cleaning coal ash out of monitor filters before packaging them to be sent for testing.
“They would take that (filter) and beat it,” Cox said. “You would see the ash come out. How are they testing it if they’re beating it out of it?”
TVA’s safety managers denied in depositions any knowledge of intentional tampering with the monitors. Two of them said they knew nothing about the monitoring process at all, leaving it to Jacobs to handle.
SHUTS DOWN WORK
Worker Brian Thacker did experience one work stoppage at the site — when his dredge hit radioactive material in the Emory River. The material was not from the ash spill but may have left over from Cold War work around Oak Ridge.
The work stoppage was brief, however. Dredging soon continued.
“When they pumped the radiation out of the river, they pumped it in there on us, and we kept hauling,” Cox said. “They never stopped us.”
Much of the coal ash from the Kingston site was shipped to a landfill in tiny Perry County, Ala., and some of it turned out to be radioactive when it arrived.
As trumpet player Cox became wracked with coughing fits, he grew suspicious about the effect the Superfund site was having on his health and about the safety measures his employer was taking.
He put tape over the screws of the metal plate that needed to be removed to change the air filters inside the cab of his heavy equipment. That would tell him when the filters were changed.
He drove the vehicle for months more, until he left the job. The tape never was removed.
“It was still on there when I left,” Cox said.