Chattanooga Times Free Press


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.”


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 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.


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.”


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.’”


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.”


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.



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.

 ?? FILE PHOTO BY J. MILES CARY ?? More than 50 coal ash spill cleanup work­ers and work­ers’ sur­vivors are su­ing Ja­cobs Engi­neer­ing for un­safe work­ing con­di­tions they al­lege led to sick­ness and death at the cleanup site.
FILE PHOTO BY J. MILES CARY More than 50 coal ash spill cleanup work­ers and work­ers’ sur­vivors are su­ing Ja­cobs Engi­neer­ing for un­safe work­ing con­di­tions they al­lege led to sick­ness and death at the cleanup site.
 ?? FILE PHO­TOS SUB­MIT­TED ?? Known as “dust devils,” these mini-tor­na­does of fly ash were sent into the air as work­ers moved the sludge.
FILE PHO­TOS SUB­MIT­TED Known as “dust devils,” these mini-tor­na­does of fly ash were sent into the air as work­ers moved the sludge.
 ??  ?? This photo de­picts a worker de­con­tam­i­na­tion area, which in­cluded a bucket of wa­ter, for 900 work­ers.
This photo de­picts a worker de­con­tam­i­na­tion area, which in­cluded a bucket of wa­ter, for 900 work­ers.

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