The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Friday, 15 December 2023 08:09

15 years on, Roane County honors victims of 2008 TVA coal ash spill

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Just released: 5-minute Sierra Club video on Kingston coal ash cleanup. Narrated by Jamie Satterfield.

Workers with engineering firm responsible for cleanup lacked protective gear for handling toxic agents

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

KINGSTON The Roane County Commission this month honored the memory and labor of the workers who cleaned up the Tennessee Valley Authority’s 2008 Kingston coal ash spill by funding a historical marker and approving a proclamation that Dec. 22 will be a day to honor the workers. 

This December marks 15 years since the spill. In the early hours of Dec. 22, 2008 at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant, 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash was released, spilling into the Swan Pond Embayment and the Emory River Channel, covering about 300 acres, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

Coal ash is the concentrated waste left after burning coal. This waste can come in different sized particles from coarse bottom ash with the consistency of sand and gravel to fine dust like particles that compose fly ash. The smaller the particle the more easily these particles can be inhaled or ingested. This waste can contain heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and cadmium and potentially elements that emit radiation. 

Exposure to these elements can potentially cause various health impacts, including cancers

          A worker cleans up coal ash in 2009 at the site of the Kingston slurry pond rupture without wearing personal protective gear.  Courtesy of Ben West via Tennessee Lookout

Tennessee Historical Marker request

In November, three wives of former Kingston cleanup workers approached the commission to ask for funding and space to put up a state historical marker to continue to remind the public about the Kingston spill and workers. The women worked with Commissioner Junior Hendrickson to bring the proposal to the commission. 

“It’s important because we don’t want another one (spill) to happen again and even if that doesn’t happen, they’re (workers are) still in the danger of working in that stuff. So hopefully, this is going to set precedent where yes, they do need proper PPE,” Hendrickson said. “It’s important for these people that died not to be forgotten.”

After hearing the proposal in November, Commissioner Ron Berry added the commission should proclaim Dec. 22 a day of remembrance for the workers.

Day of Remenbrance for the Coal Ash Cleanup Workers

“Shame on us for not doing it sooner,” Berry said. “It just took some people to physically come and share their stories with us before we actually did anything, I mean, that’s the least we can do for these folks.”

Berry said he hopes to have a presentation at the courthouse to honor the workers the same way veterans are honored.

During its December meeting, the commission officially acted on both proposals and presented Betty Johnson and Janie Clark, the wives of two Kingston coal ash workers who have died, with the proclamation.

Lawsuits consumed a decade

In 2013, a group of workers who helped clean up the spill filed a series of lawsuits against the TVA contractor in charge of sitewide safety and health, Jacobs Solutions. In 2018, a jury ruled in a phase one trial that Jacobs’ actions on the cleanup site could have caused 10 different health conditions and diseases experienced by the workers. 

The lawsuit was approaching its 10th year when it was settled earlier this spring. 

“After 15 long years I am still heartbroken in the passing of my husband, Tommy Johnson, and all the other workers that passed away,” Betty Johnson, who lost her husband earlier this year, said in a statement. “My God bless them on this upcoming holiday.”

A legacy of advocacy and education

Over the years, workers and their families have been fighting to educate people across the country about the dangers of coal ash. This includes meeting with environmental groups, holding memorials, buying billboards and attending various public meetings over the years, including one in Chicago earlier this spring held by the EPA to hear comments on its proposed expansion to the federal coal ash rule. 

The group has forged a legacy of advocacy and education about coal ash as they’ve undergone struggles with health and losses. Their mission continues through this work with Roane County: Remember Kingston.

“I’d like to thank you for bringing this to our attention and for allowing us to have a very very small part,” Commissioner Ben Gann said to the wives at the meeting. “And I hope that we never forget and as long as you’re here, as long as there’s people like you here, may we never forget.”

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Last modified on Wednesday, 07 February 2024 22:53