KNOX NEWS: Congressman Burchett, Cohen demand answers from TVA in Kingston coal ash case
CLARIFICATIONS/CORRECTIONS: This story has been updated to reflect that workers for Jacobs, a contractor hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority to help clean up a 2008 coal ash spill in East Tennessee, say they were misled by supervisors about the dangers of coal ash exposure, citing safety managers who told them they could safely eat a pound of coal ash a day without harm. The company says the statements were not meant to be taken literally. Additionally, the company provided some monitoring equipment for the protection of workers who say they should have been provided more protection, including the mandatory use of masks or respirators and the option of wearing full-body Tyvek suits.
Congressmen Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., wrote Tennessee Valley Authority President William D. Johnson demanding answers about TVA’s announcement ratepayers may have to pay for the misdeeds of the contractor used for coal ash cleanup work at its Kingston plant after the nation’s worst coal ash spill.
TVA hired Jacobs Engineering, which "later admitted that it lied to workers about the level of risk to which they were ultimately exposed, and struck a deal to pay legal bills for lawsuits Jacobs defends relating to the cleanup and sickened workers," a news release from the congressmen says.
Their letter, written Thursday, called the news, reported by the Knoxville News Sentinel, "deeply disturbing."
“TVA’s congressionally mandated mission is to improve the quality of life in the Valley through the integrated management of the region’s resources,” said the congressmen in their letter. “Regrettably, it seems that TVA’s irresponsible actions have achieved the opposite effect — more than 40 workers have died, including at least two TVA employees, and more than 400 are sick.”
TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said via email Thursday morning that someone would respond to questions, but he did not have an immediate comment.
The congressmen listed the following questions (edited for brevity):
Given the history of allegations regarding worker safety and test tampering, why did TVA hire Jacobs Engineering to clean up the site?
What commitments did Jacobs Engineering provide to ensure workers and the community would be safe?
Why, after it was uncovered that Jacobs Engineering supervisors lied to workers about the dangers of coal ash, does TVA still have a $200 million business relationship with the company that involves worker safety?
It is alleged that TVA officials offered contractor bonuses to Jacobs Engineering to not file any reports of workers being harmed. Is there any truth to this allegation?
On what basis did TVA representatives ascertain that the coal ash only had a handful of harmful substances despite test results from Duke University that showed the Kingston coal ash had radiation and two dozen toxic chemicals and metals in it?
If TVA supervisors had knowledge of worker complaints of common symptoms of coal ash exposure dating back to 2013 why were they not documented or acted upon?
What is the environmental impact of the recently closed coal ash storage areas at the former Allen Fossil Plant on the Memphis Sans aquifer?
A jury in U.S. District Court in November sided with workers in the first phase of their toxic tort lawsuit. The jury ruled Jacobs Engineering breached its contract with TVA and its duty of care to protect the workers.
The coal ash spill and cleanup
TVA put Jacobs Engineering in charge of cleaning up the 7.3 million ton coal ash spill at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in December 2008 and keeping workers and the community safe — despite the global contractor’s history of worker safety lawsuits and test tampering allegations.
Workers for Jacobs, a contractor hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority to help clean up a 2008 coal ash spill in East Tennessee, say they were misled by supervisors about the dangers of coal ash exposure, citing safety managers who told them they could safely eat a pound of coal ash a day without harm. The company says the statements were not meant to be taken literally. Additionally, the company provided some monitoring equipment for the protection of workers who say they should have been provided more protection, including the mandatory use of masks or respirators and the option of wearing full-body Tyvek suits.
More than 40 workers, including at least two TVA employees, are now dead, and more than 400 are sick.
TVA refused to say if that deal is being honored. Jacobs currently employs three of the highest-paid law firms in the country to defend the ongoing federal lawsuit.
TVA's SEC filing
But in its latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, TVA is for the first time admitting publicly it also has a deal to cover any damages the sickened workers might recoup — if they win what could be a years-long legal battle against Jacobs.
“While TVA is not a party to this litigation, TVA could be contractually obligated to reimburse Jacobs for some amounts that Jacobs is required to pay as a result of this litigation,” the report said.
TVA also warned in its first quarterly report of 2019 that Jacobs — now implicated in court for causing what is the largest case in the nation of a alleged poisoning by coal ash — has put the entire coal ash industry at risk for fundamental, and costly, change and regulation.
“TVA will continue monitoring this litigation to determine whether this or similar cases could have broader implications for the utility industry,” the report stated.
TVA spokesman Brooks declined to answer a series of questions about the TVA report and its disclosures. Instead, he emphasized the “report states TVA COULD (sic) be contractually obligated.”
Brooks on Friday said there is no proof the workers were “injured.”
“The verdict in phase one did not establish that any plaintiff was injured, a fact which the News Sentinel and other publications continue to report inaccurately,” Brooks wrote.
Negotiating possible settlement
Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan ordered Jacobs to try to negotiate a settlement with the workers in January. One cause he cited in his decision was the fact that workers continue to die as the case, first filed in 2013, drags on.
Jacobs’ attorneys made clear, though, in court filings and arguments in court they did not want to negotiate, forcing Varlan to invoke a rule granting him authority to do so despite the firm's objection.