Tennessee grand jury wants criminal coal ash investigation

Published 8:03 am Friday, February 14, 2020

KINGSTON (AP) — A grand jury in Tennessee said it would support a criminal investigation into claims that a Tennessee Valley Authority contractor failed to protect workers cleaning up a massive coal ash spill, many of whom later fell ill and some of whom died.

More than 200 of the former cleanup workers have sued Jacobs Engineering in four separate lawsuits. They all blame the contractor for exposing them to ash they say caused a slew of illnesses, including cancers of the lung, brain, blood and skin.

The first group of plaintiffs won a favorable verdict in November 2018 in the first phase of a two-part trial, but they won’t get monetary damages unless they can prove exactly what caused their specific illnesses. That second phase is on hold after the judge, alluding to workers’ urgent need for medical care, ordered mediation. No settlement has been announced. More than a hundred other plaintiffs await the outcome.

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On Tuesday, Roane County grand jurors filed a brief, handwritten addendum to their main report indicating they heard more than five hours of testimony from three witnesses about problems with the cleanup of the 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant spill that dumped more than a billion gallons of coal ash on the Swan Pond community.

The report suggests the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation should look into the workers’ plight. “The grand jury concurred with the district attorney general’s recommendation for him to predicate a TBI investigation into certain issues pertaining to cleanup worker safety,” it reads.

It goes on to allude to accusations made during first trial, including that air monitoring results and other environmental tests were tampered with and that workers were not properly informed of the dangers of coal ash or protected from it. In addition to the criminal investigation, it suggests the district attorney pursue any possible state claims under the U.S. Clean Water Act.

The report does not specifically say whether District Attorney General Russell Johnson should look into the actions of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Jacobs Engineering or another party. The TVA is not a defendant in the worker lawsuits.

On Wednesday, the utility issued a statement saying, “We cannot overstate how important the safety and well-being of our teammates is to us. Safety is our highest priority and we take every precaution to keep our teammates — both our employees and contractors — safe during operations at all TVA facilities.”

Jacobs attorney Theodore Boutrous said the company “stands by its work assisting TVA with the difficult job of managing the cleanup of the Kingston coal ash spill. Jacobs did not cause the spill or cause any workers to be injured, and the allegations are baseless.”