AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Workers who were sickened after cleaning up the country's worst ever coal ash spill may now be able to seek damages after a federal jury this week ruled that the company hired to clean up the spill failed to keep workers safe and even endangered them.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Coal ash is a toxic byproduct of power plants. And here's what happened. Ten years ago, a dike helping to contain coal ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant - that dike failed. Sludge poured out, swamping nearby communities. It wasn't clear at the time just how dangerous the cleanup would be. As of today, more than 30 workers have died and 250 others seriously sickened.
CHANG: Reporter Jamie Satterfield has been covering this for the Knoxville News Sentinel. And she says when the spill happened, 900 workers came from all around the country with absolutely no awareness of the hazards.
JAMIE SATTERFIELD: You know, they really didn't care. What they were told is that there might be bodies in this stuff, that there had been a couple houses that had already been taken out. And then once they got it contained, workers then began the process of cleaning up this mess. And that was a years-long process.
CHANG: And explain why this kind of work is dangerous. How toxic is this?
SATTERFIELD: You know, coal ash is full of toxins. It has arsenic, radioactive materials, mercury, lead, cadmium. I could go on and on. It's got at least 26 dangerous chemicals. It is the long-term exposure to coal ash that is at issue here. These workers were without any kind of protective clothing or mask. So coal ash is a very dangerous substance.
CHANG: And - well, it sounds like the company that hired them didn't give them equipment or uniforms to keep them safer, but there was also no verbal warning.
SATTERFIELD: What my investigation showed was that Jacobs Engineering, this firm that was put in charge of the cleanup, they not only did not tell the workers the danger of coal ash, they didn't explain to them what was in it. And in fact, they lied to them. They told them that they could safely eat a pound of coal ash, which again is full of toxins, every day and be safe. That's absurd. Even the American Coal Ash Association doesn't make that claim. And they also - they pressured the EPA. The EPA wanted these workers in Tyvek suits and to have respiratory masks and other respiratory protection. And Jacobs and TVA pushed back on the EPA. And then later, as some of these workers started getting sick on the job site and began to question the safety of the coal ash, if they demanded respiratory protection, they were fired.
CHANG: We should note that when you were covering this story as a reporter, you were also involved in helping the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. Can you explain what you did on their behalf?
SATTERFIELD: These workers - to explain, many of them are from right here in my own community of east Tennessee, but many of them are from across the country as well. And so when I initially started the reporting, I was able to find workers and send them to the lawyers. And the other thing that I did was anytime that I discovered in my reporting, I would - once we published, then I would send that to them.
CHANG: We continue to hear about coal ash spills. Are there just not enough regulations on coal ash storage? Is that why this keeps happening?
SATTERFIELD: You know, the EPA has refused to label coal ash as a hazardous waste. And why that terminology is important is because if it's labeled a hazardous waste, there are certain protections that then become guaranteed. This case is unusual in the sheer size. We have never had a worker exposure of this magnitude, 900 workers. So this case is extremely unique. But it certainly highlights that coal ash is quite dangerous.
CHANG: And why has the EPA so far refused to label coal ash hazardous waste?
SATTERFIELD: Coal ash is big money. They make millions every year off of it. It's used in concrete. It's used in makeup, believe it or not. In 2010, during the Obama administration, there was a real concerted effort to get the EPA to classify it as hazardous waste. And the American Coal Ash Association and all these major power providers lobbied very hard and very successfully because the EPA still to this day treats coal ash like household garbage.
CHANG: Jamie Satterfield is a reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Thank you so much for your tremendous reporting.
SATTERFIELD: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHAHIN ASNA'S "TUGHRA (INSTRUMENTAL)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.