NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Attorneys for a group of workers who believe their jobs cleaning up a massive coal ash spill in Tennessee led to a slew of illnesses, including fatal cancers, have reached a settlement with the contractor who organized the cleanup for the Tennessee Valley Authority, according to a notice posted on the Jacobs Engineering website on Tuesday.
Beginning in 2013, more than 200 workers sued Jacobs, claiming the company's supervisors misled them about the dangers of the ash, failed to provide them with protective gear like respirators, and tampered with the air monitoring equipment meant to keep the workers safe.
In 2018, a Knoxville jury took only a few hours to decide that Jacobs had breached its duty of safety, exposing workers to airborne “fly ash” with known carcinogens. The jurors said Jacobs’ actions were capable of making the workers sick. The key question of whether they caused each worker’s specific illness was left for a different jury in a second phase of the federal civil trial.
That second phase never came.
The judge at the time recognized that the workers still had a long road ahead with the lawsuit and ordered the two sides to try mediation, alluding to many of the workers' urgent need for medical care. Mediation, however, was not successful, and the suit dragged on as Jacobs continued to file appeals, repeatedly trying to get the case thrown out.
Twice, the company asked the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to find that it is immune from being sued because it was acting on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal agency. The court ruled against Jacobs both times, most recently last year.
Jacobs also brought a claim that most of the workers' cases should be dismissed because they failed to file doctors' reports concluding that the ash exposure was a “substantial contributing factor” to their illnesses. The requirement is part of the Tennessee Silica Claims Priorities Act, which the workers' attorneys argued did not apply to them. The act specifically refers to silica, which is just one component of coal ash. The Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments last year and has yet to rule.
While the workers' suit against Jacobs faced repeated delays, dozens of plaintiffs died. They include people like Tommy Johnson, who arrived at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant just hours after the Dec. 22, 2008, spill, and got to work. He labored long hours, driving a fuel truck in the coal ash sludge with few or no days off for months at a time. As the sludge slowly dried over the yearslong course of the cleanup, it turned into a fine dust that had to be constantly watered down but still filled the air, especially on windy days.
Johnson developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and told The Associated Press in a 2019 interview that he would regularly pass out because he could not get enough oxygen. When he was working in the ash, “my doctor told me to that I needed to wear a mask, and they wouldn’t let us wear a mask," he said. “They told us we didn’t need them.”
Johnson collapsed at church on April 30, and he died last week on May 18, his wife of 26 years, Betty Johnson, said Tuesday. She described her husband as “a loving, happy man” who “cared for people.”
The couple had planned to travel around the world together but had to cancel those plans because Tommy Johnson became too sick, she said.
Speaking of Jacobs and the Tennessee Valley Authority, Betty Johnson said “they should be ashamed.”
Jacobs has always maintained that it handled the cleanup in a safe way and was not at fault for the workers' illnesses. TVA has not commented on the personal injury cases other than to say Jacobs was responsible for worker safety. The agency has stressed that coal ash is classified as nonhazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Duke University geochemist Avner Vengosh, who is not involved in the litigation, tested ash from the Kingston spill and found high levels of radioactivity and toxic metals, including arsenic and mercury. In a statement about his 2009 peer-reviewed study, he warned that inhaling airborne particles could “have a severe health impact on local residents or workers.”
But the workers said Jacobs safety supervisors told them “you could eat a pound of it a day and it wouldn’t hurt you.”
The agreed settlement has not yet been filed with the courts. A notice on the Jacobs' website says only “to avoid further litigation, the parties chose to enter into an agreement to resolve the cases. The terms of this settlement are confidential.”