Coal Ash First Responders Slowly Dying, Lawsuit Filed
A jury in U.S. District Court ruled last week there is enough evidence to try to force Jacobs Engineering, the firm Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) ratepayers paid $64 million to safely clean up the nation’s largest coal ash spill at Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant in December 2008, to pay for the medical testing and treatment of those who were first responders and were poisoned.
Testimony at a three-week trial was held in the courtroom of Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan, nominated to his post by former President George W. Bush. It showed Jacobs and TVA successfully lobbied for lower standards for worker safety during the clean-up.
During the trial, it was revealed that Jacobs Engineering’s safety manager Sean Healey put together false testing protocol that ensured low exposure readings, and Jacobs’ safety manager Tom Bock lied to the workers about the dangers of coal ash and refused to get protective gear for them. Healey ordered workers to wash coal ash away from stationary air monitors to lower the readings.
Betty Johnson, Janie Clark and Dorothy Bass watched their husbands leave to rescue the residents of Roane County from the 7.65 million tons of coal ash pouring out of the plant in 2008. Now, ten years later, these men can barely walk, to breathe, to sleep.
“You look at your husband, and you’re thinking, is that his last breath?” Johnson said.
More than thirty workers are dead in total, and more than 250 are slowly meeting their demise.
“Nobody wants to touch it,” Clark said of efforts to reveal what really happened at the site. “This is a TVA town. These workers were our first responders, and there’s not even a plaque for them in Roane County. What does that tell you?”
At the tort trial, which is likely to be several months out, responders will again need to prove their case of intentional poisoning before they are entitled to damages. What’s more, many of laborers don’t have insurance. They know they’re sick but can’t afford to pinpoint the problems without being awarded damages.
Coal ash spill cleanup worker Harvey Bass suffers from chronic lung disease, sleep apnea, and other ailments as a result of his involvement in the efforts. “I can’t breathe through my nose anymore,” Bass said. “I run out of breath just talking.”
Ansol Clark suffered a stroke while still on the job but kept working. He now has a blood disease and other ailments. “They gave me something I can’t get rid of,” Clark said. “Every 30 days I have to be poked with a needle and have (diseased) blood drawn out.”
His wife added, “He never can give blood to his son. He never can give blood to his brother. He had nothing wrong with him when he went out there.”
Betty Johnson’s husband, Tommy, has neuropathy, sleep apnea, and breathing problems.
“I have no feeling in my feet, none, or in my fingertips,” Johnson said. “But sometimes that pain hits your foot. It’s like someone’s taking a nail to it.”
“We’d like to go on vacations and do things, but we can’t, and we’ve had to cut back on our activities and thinking about what you do spend,” Betty added. She has to keep working in order for the couple to have insurance.
Tommy added, “I’m not able to spend the time with my kids and grandkids I’d like to spend because I don’t have enough strength. My grandkids are suffering for it. I used to like to hunt and fish. I used to raise dogs. I don’t have one animal now.”
The three women say it was tough for the family and frends of the first responders to stay silent during the three-week trial.
“It was hard not to say something — scream out,” Betty Johnson said. “I’m ashamed of Jacobs. I’m ashamed of the way they treat people, the way they lied to people, misused and endangered families. No company should do anyone that way.
Janie Clark added, “For us to have gotten the truth out in court is a major triumph for justice since the opposing forces have worked so long and hard to prevent the public from knowing how dangerous coal ash really is.”