Above: Aerial photographs of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee prior to the Dec. 22, 2008, coal ash spill, and the same the facility in the days after that spill occurred. (Published by TVA)
It’s been more than a decade since a ruptured dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant sent more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilling into the Emory River — smothering 300 acres of land and damaging dozens of homes.
Since Alabama Power announced plans to use a cap-in-place method to close the coal ash pond at Plant Barry in Mobile County, Kingston has been one of the first examples environmental groups point to when highlighting the potential hazards of storing wet coal ash.
At the time of the spill, some residents described the swath of land directly impacted by the Kingston spill as “a moonscape.” Others said it was “like Mars.” One resident recently told Lagniappe: “It was like the Earth just vomited all over everything for miles and miles.”
Today, in areas where several feet of sludge once sat, there is a park, green spaces, walking trails and ballfields. In all, TVA spent more than $1.2 billion cleaning up the spill and put millions more into projects aimed at making surrounding communities whole again.
However, many residents still live with constant reminders of Dec. 22, 2008 — the day Kingston became the poster child for reforming how coal ash is managed and stored in the United States — and what happened in the days that followed.
“When you search online, it’s still one of the first things that comes up about this area,” Roane County Commission Chairman Randy Ellis told Lagniappe. “To be honest, I’m sort of reluctant to give interviews like this because it pushes us back into the forefront.”
In addition to the ecological impact on the surrounding area, the fallout from the Kingston spill has left a legacy of legal battles that have played out in local and national headlines.
As the largest coal ash spill in the U.S., Kingston also marked a major turning point in how federal regulators and environmental activists viewed hundreds of similar facilities throughout the country. The phrase “since Kingston” is commonly used in discussions about coal ash and coal ash reform, and according to Ellis, that “stigma” has come to hurt the community over time.
“The disaster itself, actually kind of shielded our economy from the  recession with the cleanup process and all the work that came in, but since things have started to subside, we’ve seen a dramatic drop in property values and people not wanting to live here,” he said. “I have real estate companies call me everyday saying, ‘Can you take it easy on all of this ash spill stuff?’”
For some, including elected officials like Ellis, the Kingston spill also created a lingering distrust of TVA — one of the largest electricity providers in the country. That wasn’t always the case, though. Even in the immediate aftermath of the spill, Ellis said people there trusted TVA.
He said the agency has a prominent history in the community as a place where generations of residents found good jobs. Ellis was publicly critical of TVA as a member of a community advisory board set up by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and that eventually transitioned into a successful run for county commissioner.
Still, Ellis said he saw some pushback and almost felt like an outsider at times.
“Everybody trusted them. They’d employed thousands of people, including my grandfather and my uncles, and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” he added. “As time went along and some of these things came out, people finally said, ‘You know, you were right.’”
What came out were details about TVA’s response to the spill. Coincidentally, at least part of that has a tie to Mobile in U.S. Attorney Richard W. Moore. As TVA’s inspector general at the time, Moore was tasked with investigating its handling of the situation.
About six months after the spill occurred, Moore’s office issued a damning report suggesting TVA “made a conscious decision” in the early stages to present only the facts that reduced its own legal liability. Part of that effort, according to Moore, was an overemphasis that reports organized by TVA’s lawyers placed on the technical and mechanical causes of the spill.
Those same efforts never evaluated management practices or a culture within TVA that Moore’s report said contributed to a number of warning signs and “red flags” being ignored before the spill, including studies and inspections that questioned the stability of its ash ponds.
“One choice was to conduct a diligent review of TVA management practices as well as to conduct a technical, physical examination of the failed structure and then to publish whatever was discovered to the world,” a summary of Moore’s report reads. “The second choice was to ‘circle the wagons,’ carefully craft press releases to project TVA in the most favorable light and to tightly control any reports done by TVA of the failure to minimize legal liability.”
Moore left TVA in 2017 to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.
Reached by Lagniappe, he declined to talk about his role in the Office of Inspector General. He also said it would be improper for him to comment on Alabama Power’s plans for Plant Barry’s ash pond.
Legacy of litigation
Over the last half decade, more information about the response to the Kingston spill has come out in various lawsuits against TVA and the primary contractor hired to clean it up.
Despite initially trying to argue it couldn’t be sued as an arm of the federal government, the agency agreed to a pay $27.8 million in 2014 to settle lawsuits with hundreds of plaintiffs — mostly home and business owners — who claimed to have been harmed by the spill.
But one of the biggest lingering legal issues from the Kingston spill is a lawsuit TVA is technically not even involved in on paper, and that is a series of lawsuits brought against Jacobs Engineering, which was contracted by TVA to handle the cleanup effort after the 2008 spill.
Jacob’s case is relevant to TVA because it could be liable for damages, if the workers prevail.
The on-the-ground cleanup efforts in Kingston spanned from 2008 to 2013, but it wasn’t officially wrapped up until 2015. Since that work began only a few hours after the spill, more than 30 workers have died and 250 others are sick or suffering from ailments they believed were directly caused by exposure to fly ash at the cleanup site. A by-product of burning coal, fly ash contains arsenic, mercury, barium and a host of other heavy metals with negative health effects.
Last year, a federal jury found evidence to support those workers’ claims that Jacobs failed to adequately train and educate them about the dangers of the coal ash they were working and compromised necessary protections so the cleanup site would look safe to the public.
Julie Bledsoe, whose family was involved in the lawsuit against Jacobs, told Lagniappe her husband, Ron, began having a range of health issues from low testosterone to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) after he began working as a water-truck driver there.
In a “non-air-conditioned truck with the windows down,” she said her husband breathed in dust from fly ash for years. Like others, she said Ron and two of his brothers stayed because the job was good, even though there was growing concern about the conditions they were working in.
Workers have accused Jacobs of not providing proper safety gear like respirators and dust masks and discouraging employees from wearing them. In deposition testimony, some of Jacobs and TVA’s own employees said the agency would have been in charge of safety equipment.
“There wasn’t anywhere else better to go. You’ve got to have a job, and then the whole time they’re telling you: ‘It’s safe.’ ‘It’s OK.’ ‘You don’t need a dust mask,’” Julie Bledsoe said. “My husband is a lifelong nonsmoker. He never had asthma or any other kind of outstanding respiratory issue, and he went from being an otherwise healthy person straight to COPD.”
TVA and Jacobs have denied many of the claims made in the workers’ lawsuits and have maintained others were misrepresented during the trial. However, those cases are still moving forward, and a deadline for potential mediation was recently extended to August.
Jacobs has filed an appeal of the jury’s decision before the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Ohio. Lawyers representing former cleanup workers have argued this could drag out the 6-year-old legal battle even longer, and Beldsoe said that process has already been frustrating enough.
Still, she considers her family lucky compared to some of the others.
“This may be settled after we’re dead and gone, and the people who worked down there who don’t have insurance themselves or through their spouse, they’re dying — they’re flat out dying, and the ones that are sick and can’t get to a doctor are just getting sicker,” she said. “My husband, as long as I have my job, is insured, but this isn’t the way he planned on spending his retirement — facing the possibility of smothering to death. It just ain’t what he had in mind.”
It is worth noting that, in addition to its $1.2 billion cleanup effort, TVA paid Roane County more than $40 million in 2009 for lost “economic development” opportunities that may have resulted from the spill and gave another $32 million to the Roane County Public School System.
Despite that, Roane County joined two of its cities, Kingston and Harriman, in their own lawsuit against TVA and Jacobs Engineering. Their complaint claims misrepresentations made about the safety of coal ash exacerbated “community aggravation and inconvenience, loss of governmental property values, lost tax revenues, healthcare and emergency response costs.”
In recent months, Roane County has also stopped using a sports complex TVA built on part of the area affected by the spill while its tested for possible coal-ash contamination. TVA says the area is safe, but did agree to test the topsoil along with state conservation officers in Tennessee.
While not all of the local officials there feel the same, some of the lingering issues with TVA are rooted in the “mistrust” Ellis spoke of.
He didn’t want to comment on plans for the coal ash pond at Plant Barry or other issues he’s unfamiliar with, but as Alabama Power moves closer to getting the final approval for its cap-in-place proposal, Ellis encouraged leaders in the Yellowhammer State “to be aware.”
“It’s your community and it directly impacts their constituents. It’s imperative,” Ellis said. “I’d give them a message that they need to be involved they need to ask questions — if there’s public meetings they need to go. My community, for years and years, we trusted these people and this is what happened. One thing my father used to always say was ‘trust, but verify.’”
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