‘They Deserve To Be Heard’: Sick and Dying Coal Ash Cleanup Workers Fight for Their Lives
Doug Bledsoe opened his mouth to order sweet tea at the Ruby Tuesday in Powell, Tennessee, when he had his first seizure.
It was a Friday night in November 2018. Bledsoe and his wife, Johnnie, were out celebrating the end of her two-year battle with breast cancer and trying to relax after his hospital visit that afternoon, when doctors found a spot on his lung. Johnnie remembers looking across the table at her husband, whose tan face was slack, his mouth drooling. She quickly got him to their truck and sped to North Knoxville medical center across the street.
Doctors ran a Cat scan of his brain and found a large tumor growing above his eye, which was catalyzing the seizure and affecting his speech. They also found that the shadow on his lung, as well as spots on his brain and adrenal gland, were tumors.
“I was still at home, but the light was out,” Bledsoe told me a year-and-a-half later, thumping his worn hands against a metal chair on his back porch. It was a warm May morning and storm clouds glinted overhead at the couple’s “home place” – a green, 70-acre crest with woodlands on either side – that has been in the family since Bledsoe was three years old. Behind their porch, a yard of old trucks and trailers marked his long career as a crewman for the film industry, moonlighting as a stuntman and actor in movies such as Coal Miner’s Daughter and Burning Rage.
The Bledsoes’ lives revolved around labor: when Doug wasn’t traveling, they bush hogged hay, trained horses and invested in a cattle breeding business that landed them in a bovine hall of fame.
In early 2009, after movie work dried up, his union offered him a new job with GUBMK, a long-term subcontractor under the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, a federal agency founded to provide flood control and electricity to east Tennessee. TVA was known as one of the best employers in the south-east, putting thousands to work and creating a thriving middle class.
For almost six years, he, along with roughly 900 others, helped clean up the nation’s largest coal ash spill an hour west of his doorstep. TVA’s own testing showed the utility knew the coal ash – waste material leftover from burning coal for electricity – contained toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, mercury and selenium, and radioactive materials, decades before the spill; an EPA pollution report from early 2009 shows TVA tested for radioactivity in ash and soil samples two weeks after the spill occurred and EPA found spikes in radiation above background levels.
When reached for comment, Scott Brooks, a TVA spokesperson, stated, “The constituents of coal ash have been well-known for years, and TVA was transparent with this information throughout the Kingston recovery project.”
But an initial draft of the site safety plan made no mention of radioactive materials, and did not list heavy metals as constituents of fly ash aside from arsenic. Contractors working for the utility repeatedly assured cleanup workers that the ash, which floated in the air, coating their bare skin and lungs, was safe. Some workers testified the company refused to provide or allow for the use of protective suits or masks.
“I was right proud of TVA until I went to work for them,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe, 69, had grey hair that swept across his forehead. In May, he still looked hardy, but his ailments sapped his energy and left him rail thin. His stage four cancer meant he was on chemotherapy treatments for the remainder of his life, though he outlived his doctor’s expectations by over nine months.
Bledsoe was one of many workers hired for the cleanup who have suffered since the spill. His eldest brother, Ron, a lifelong health enthusiast, has a terminal condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. App Thacker, who dredged ash from the riverways, said his testosterone levels dropped to those of an octogenarian when he was in his 40s. Roy Edmonds, who drove dump trucks around the site, had five debilitating surgeries to remove a sarcoma that nearly bankrupted his family. Ansol Clark, a fuel truck driver, had two strokes before he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. Frankie Norris, a heavy equipment operator, developed weeping sores all over his skin, including on his face. He has to wash blood off his body every night. Philip Crick, who operated a water truck, had skyrocketing blood pressure and a series of skin cancer diagnoses that led to reconstructive surgery on both sides of his nose.
I spoke to 20 workers and their family members about the pain they’ve endured in the decade since the spill. One worker’s wife remembers the sour, metallic odor of ash on their skin lingering for years. Another worker’s wife tasted it in his mustache when she kissed him.
In the decade since, at least 50 people who worked the cleanup are dead and over 400 are sick. Many of them are unemployed, on disability, or were forced to take early retirement, their bank accounts drained from years of exorbitant out-of-pocket medical bills. More than 200 workers, spouses and families of the deceased are now part of an ongoing series of lawsuits seeking damages against Jacobs Engineering, the contractor TVA paid $64m to oversee the cleanup.
“I was right proud of TVA until I went to work for them.”
The case has dragged on for seven years. In 2018, a jury found Jacobs – now represented by three of the highest-paid law firms in the nation – failed to protect its workers, which could have contributed to their medical conditions. In 2019, a judge, citing the illnesses of the workers, ordered Jacobs to mediate to reach a settlement, but so far two offers have failed.
In March, Jacobs offered the first 52 workers and spouses who filed 2013’s original suit $10m, but they would have to pay back insurance plans like Medicare, Jacobs would be released from any future responsibility and the 2018 verdict would be vacated. After lawyer’s fees, and if the settlement were split evenly, each plaintiff would receive roughly $125,000 – an amount some workers say would be nowhere near enough to pay their medical expenses.
They turned it down, so Jacobs offered 197 additional workers and their families, plaintiffs in subsequent legal actions, $10,000 each to drop their own lawsuits (according to court records, roughly 30 plaintiffs have settled). When news of the settlement offers leaked to the press, Jacobs tried to get a court to charge the workers for the company’s legal fees. A judge rejected that – but with no settlement reached, each plaintiff from the phase I trial now has to prove their individual illnesses are linked to their coal ash exposure in a phase II trial planned for 2021.
While TVA is not a party in the current lawsuit, Jacobs is still contracting with the company. The utility’s customers could also be on the hook for Jacobs’ escalating legal bills. Workers have begged TVA for financial help paying medical costs via a health insurance program. But TVA denied their request, and Brooks, the TVA spokesperson, told Southerly and the Guardian that “TVA is not a party to that litigation” and “will continue to respect the judicial process”.
Now, some of those involved in the lawsuit are nearing the end of their lives. Others have died. The workers I spoke to say they’ve never even gotten an apology from TVA.
After 12 years of fighting, many wonder if they’ll ever see a cent.
Coal ash is the nation’s second-largest waste stream after household garbage, and it contains a slew of heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, mercury and lead, as well as radioactive materials such as uranium. There are over 1,400 coal ash sites across 45 US states and territories. For decades, the waste material has been dumped by utilities in unlined landfills or ponds, leaking into waterways and groundwater across the country.
TVA’s Kingston fossil plant in Harriman, Tennessee, is no exception. Operating since 1955, Kingston still produces roughly 1,400 tons of ash each day. TVA’s CEO, Jeff Lyash, referred to the ash as 100 years of deferred costs. For decades, utilities and regulators did not address this growing problem. Then, around 1am on 22 December 2008, a six-story earthen dike burst at the Kingston plant, spewing over a billion gallons of coal ash mixed with water – roughly 150 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of thick, grey muck – across 300 acres, pummeling two dozen houses and choking nearby waterways. To date, it is the North American continent’s largest industrial spill, five times larger than the BP oil spill.
The spill led to increased federal regulation in 2015 – although the Trump administration has since rolled back the new rules – but the lack of federal and state oversight made arranging cleanup simple on TVA’s part: they hired Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc, a Texas-based contractor with a history of worker safety lawsuits.
Subcontractors hired workers, mostly through unions, to excavate the coal ash and haul it on to train cars so it could be shipped to a lined landfill in Uniontown, Alabama – a rural, low-income community that is 90% Black. (Residents there, four of whom were unsuccessfully sued by the coal ash landfill for defamation, filed a civil rights claim against Alabama officials for dumping it, but the EPA rejected it in 2018.)
Because the 2008 recession hit east Tennessee hard, hundreds of people quickly signed up for a well-paying job by a trusted utility. They received health insurance for their families while they worked and workers say they made around $25 an hour plus overtime – and they worked overtime often, logging 12 to 18-hour shifts, seven days a week, for years. The men I spoke to say they were proud to help a community through a catastrophe alongside TVA.
Months after the spill, Jacobs wrote the first of many revised safety plans for the cleanup, which were approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, and TVA, who also employed safety managers. The oversight administrator for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation was also on site, and later served as a witness for Jacobs at trial.
Then in May, the EPA issued a Cercla order regulating Kingston as a hazardous waste site within the EPA’s Superfund program. But the designation was complex: though the substances that constituted coal ash were hazardous substances under Superfund law, coal ash itself was not regulated as a hazardous waste.
Although workers took hazardous waste training, those I spoke to and others who testified or supplied affidavits for the 2018 trial, said they were not informed of the constituents in coal ash, or that they could be dangerous to human health. In 2009, Anda Ray, TVA’s project coordinator for the Cercla order, told 60 Minutes the spill’s coal ash had similar constituents to soil and rocks, and that she’d swim in the Emory River, then filled with coal ash.
But workers say none of the regulators provided respiratory equipment to workers, despite complaining of being covered with toxic dust every day for years. Jacobs’ safety manager at the time, Tom Bock, told them they could safely “eat a pound of coal ash a day” and directed at least three workers – two laborer foremen and a tool room manager – to turn over or destroy on-site dust masks.
According to TVA spokesperson Brooks, the public utility takes “every precaution necessary” including having to “determine and provide the proper protective gear for the workers”. A spokesperson from Jacobs said that “depending on their specific work activities, workers were either required to wear respiratory protection, or were permitted to wear respirator protection on a voluntary basis, in accordance with the site safety plan”. Within the exclusion zone, the spill site where hundreds of workers toiled daily, court records show only four men were able to jump through Jacobs’ hoops for approval to wear dust masks, which they had to self-supply.
Workers say they were discouraged from wearing any form of PPE besides steel-toed boots, a hard hat, a fluorescent vest and occasionally goggles or gloves, and safety orders by statewide regulators and TVA support these claims. When they asked to wear dust masks, or when they were prescribed dust masks from their doctors, they said company culture implied if they wore them, they’d be fired. Union members, especially those who’d worked in the mining industry before, knew that typical safety regulations required PPE and that the silica dust – a mineral 100 times finer than sand that can lodge in the lungs and cause respiratory illnesses – in the coal ash could be hazardous. Witnesses during the trial testified Jacobs tampered with dust monitors, manipulated dust sampling results, and failed to warn workers about the dangers. (Jacobs said the air monitoring manufacturer, Mesa Labs, testified the equipment was handled properly.)
“The biggest problem was that they didn’t want to scare the general public,” said Michael Bledsoe, Doug’s older brother who also drove trucks on the site. “They didn’t want them to see us wearing masks or respirators or Tyvek suits. They wanted to basically keep it [coal ash] a secret and that was told to us every day.”
Craig Wilkinson and his older brother Keith left New York to take jobs at Kingston in August 2009. For seven months, Wilkinson worked the night shift, backhoeing wet coal ash pumped out of contaminated riverways, then squeezing out water with the back of a 1,60
“It’s like a bad dream. I never would’ve stayed but I was assured everything was all right.”
Fly ash, a powdery and minutely fine type of coal ash captured in power plant stacks, was everywhere. He remembers the particles distended in the beams of his backhoe like ice crystals.
During his first day of orientation, TVA’s head of security, Jean Nance, assured Wilkinson that the coal ash was safe, but he started feeling strange after a few months: aching bones, blurry eyesight, shortness of breath. Three years later, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema. He suffered chronic bouts of pneumonia, and eventually began coughing up blood. By 2015, Wilkinson retired on disability and required oxygen around the clock. In 2017, he received a double lung transplant. He told me he has since taken 12,000 pills annually and spends roughly $15,000 a year on his medical treatments. His primary care physician attributes his severe lung disease to fly ash exposure. Nance, a lifelong TVA employee, died of leukemia in 2015.
“It’s like a bad dream really,” said Wilkinson. “I never would’ve stayed but I was assured everything was all right.”
During the cleanup, scores of workers showed similar symptoms. At first, some called their shortness of breath, nose bleeds, coughing fits, and allergy-like symptoms the “Kingston crud” and attributed it to exhaustion. But about a year or two after the spill, there were whispers of a slew of other, more serious ailments: high blood pressure, plummeting testosterone, chronic sinus infections requiring inhalers, black out spells, and raised, itchy sores.
Coal ash lodges in the lungs forever; the toxins in it can damage the body years after exposure. Research shows that short-term exposure to coal ash can cause shortness of breath, dizziness and vomiting, and prolonged exposure can impact every major organ system in the human body, causing birth defects, heart, lung and neurological disease, and a variety of cancers. Dr Paul Terry, an epidemiologist at the University of Tennessee, analyzed worker health concerns for phase I of the lawsuit. In particular, Terry noticed the relation between coal ash and the frequency of respiratory, cardiovascular and skin conditions.
“All of the diseases that were looked at by us were plausibly related to coal ash exposure,” Terry told me. “Particularly the protracted exposure they had over time without any protection like masks. They weren’t five miles away living in a house. They were in the middle of the dust, some people for years.”
Bledsoe said everyone “was pretty sure we weren’t going to fare real well” after the job ended. His coworker, App Thacker, who was laid off after he told supervisors about his own medical issues, mentioned pursuing a lawsuit. In 2013, a couple dozen workers, including Bledsoe and Thacker, met with a local lawyer, Jim Scott, and decided to sue Jacobs. But the cleanup lasted two more years, and even after the suit was filed, site-wide policies on health and safety developed by Jacobs and approved by TVA continued to make it extremely difficult for respiratory equipment to be used.
A Jacobs spokesperson claims there “has been extensive misinformation” about the cleanup and that there’s “no evidence” that the health effects were from the coal ash. “Jacobs worked closely with TVA in upholding rigorous safety standards,” the spokesperson said.
In early 2017, a private investigator told Jamie Satterfield, a reporter at the Knoxville News Sentinel, that she needed to look into the sick workers. At first, she was skeptical. Her father was a coalminer and she was familiar with the dangers of inhaling coal dust. “I couldn’t conceive that these workers were not outfitted in protection. It made no sense to me,” Satterfield said.
She called plaintiffs in the lawsuit, listening as they rattled off their symptoms. But it was Wilkinson who convinced her. He immediately hung up on her, then called back with permission from Scott. He said he was dangerously close to committing suicide. He wasn’t able to pay his medical bills before getting early Medicare at age 55.
Three years later, Satterfield’s reporting validated how many workers felt. She revealed that state and federal agencies were not reducing worker’s health risks by obtaining internal documents revealing TVA knew coal ash contained high levels of radioactive materials and heavy metals decades before the disaster. She also discovered Tennessee’s environmental regulators altered sampling results, downplaying higher levels of uranium and radium.
Before her investigation, Wilkinson said, “I was contemplating going out to the back shed and ending it.” He told Satterfield if she agreed to tell their story, he’d hang on.
There is little research on the combined impact of coal ash on health, according to Avner Vengosh, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University. In part, he said, it’s because the people most often living near coal ash facilities are rural, low-income, and may already suffer health issues.
“How you actually link the coal ash [to health impacts] is challenging, and how you delineate the net effect of the exposure to coal ash to all the underlying health effects is a major challenge,” Vengosh told me. “It’s why prevention is so important, and an organization like the EPA needs to prevent or reduce the risk for such communities.”
Meanwhile, former workers’ bills have piled up, robbing them of their retirement savings. Some have had to sell off property and cattle. “I don’t think I can afford to settle with them,” said Bledsoe, who lived on a fixed income. Medicare covered at least $55,000 of chemotherapy treatments alone, and he estimated out-of-pocket costs for he and his wife’s cancer treatments was $20,000.
Frankie Norris, just 59, had to take disability five years before he planned to retire and has spent all his savings on doctor bills. He quit taking some medications because he can’t afford them. He said his family has suffered from exposure to the ash he brought home, too. His wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and uterine cancer this year. His daughter-in-law lived with him during the cleanup while pregnant with his grandson. He was born with a cleft foot and has sinus problems.
Along with COPD, Tommy Johnson has low kidney function and black out spells once or twice a week. His wife, Betty, had to quit work to become his caretaker. Medical bills cost about $5,000 out-of-pocket annually. “Your retirement benefits and social security, it just wipes it out after a while,” he said.
Those who are uninsured and too young for Medicare can’t afford to see the doctor. Jason Williams, 49, had to quit his last job after passing out 12 times in one day. He also has low testosterone, failing eyesight and skin cancer. Four years ago, Williams had surgery to remove cancer spots on his nose; he says he still has cancer, but no insurance for continued monitoring.
TVA told community members it would pay medical expenses for all those affected during a public meeting in 2009. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Jim Scott, said he’s “disappointed” TVA reneged on that promise. (Brooks did not respond to a request for comment about this promise.)
Terry worries about compensation for families of workers who have already died. Because it will be challenging to connect each worker’s individual cocktail of diseases to their specific coal ash exposure, he said it’s a shame that at least 50 workers have already died. “I hope they can be heard somehow, the people who didn’t make it this far,” Terry said. “They deserve to be heard.”
Although TVA is not implicated in the current lawsuit, the utility could choose to intervene. In 2019, workers begged TVA’s board of directors to establish a health insurance program to help them afford their medical bills. There is a precedent for such action: 9/11 first responders recently received lifelong medical care on behalf of the US government. Although TVA board members described the workers as sincere and expressed sympathy, and one member, Richard Howorth, said they would seek “expedience” in determining what role TVA could serve in their complaints, a year later the workers have yet to see any form of assistance.
Instead, this spring, TVA donated $2m to community organizations that address hardships created by Covid-19, and distributed 50,000 masks to emergency workers. Safety masks just like the ones Kingston supervisors threw in the trash.
The workers still struggle with stress, anxiety and depression. The pandemic and failed mediation has compounded their isolation: the most recent mediation offer from Jacobs – $10,000 each for workers and their families to drop the lawsuit – came as Covid-19 spread throughout the US. Immunocompromised people like these workers are especially at risk of complications from the virus, so most told me they don’t leave the house, and haven’t seen family or friends in months. Wilkinson has had several panic attacks and struggled with suicidal thoughts. During one of our phone conversations, he told me he sometimes feels like a “waste of skin”.
Although he checks in about his health with two friends from the spill, he feels detached from the lawsuit. Some hope for a settlement so they don’t have to continue the court battle. Thacker, who originally filed the lawsuit, said he’d rather go to court if they’re not able to get a settlement with Jacobs or financial and medical assistance from TVA. “I’ve waited eight years, I can wait a little longer.”
But for other workers, time is more limited. Last spring, Wilkinson thought about moving to Tennessee to be closer to where the case is playing out, and to the landscape he fell in love with, but his health is too precarious. In June, he got bad news: his body is rejecting his new lungs, which worked at about half their capacity over the summer.
Wilkinson said his doctors aren’t sure if his body could handle another transplant. The prospect makes him feel numb. “It’s a strange feeling knowing that you’re going to die,” Wilkinson told me. “I know it’ll definitely be sooner rather than later.”
Last week, Bledsoe was admitted to the intensive care unit for ongoing complications related to his chemotherapy. In a Facebook group for the workers, Bledsoe’s sister-in-law pinned up an “urgent prayer request” for Bledsoe, who began end-of-life care days later.
At 10.55am on Wednesday, 12 August, three days before Bledsoe’s 70th birthday, I received a text: “Doug just went to heaven.”
Austyn Gaffney is a freelance reporter in Kentucky covering agriculture, energy and climate change. Her work has been featured in HuffPost, In These Times, onEarth, Sierra, Vice and more.
Morgan Hornsby is a documentary photographer from Eastern Kentucky. She is a graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Danish School of Media and Journalism. Her work focuses on criminal justice and family.
Co-published with The Guardian and Southerly.