‘They made it nice’
In Kingston, where grassy knolls and glistening rivers coalesce, it is hard to find signs of the nation’s largest coal-ash catastrophe. Once blanketed in dirty sludge, which ruptured gas lines, blocked rail cars and clogged the Emory River, the TVA spill site is now covered with vegetation; the area around the plant has been transformed into a public park, with fishing docks and manicured trails.
After an extensive cleanup and study — during which 100 scientists monitored everything from water quality to wildlife — government officials and academic researchers alike have concluded the coal-ash contamination will cause little lasting harm. In 2015, federal authorities shuttered the so-called Kingston Recovery Effort, declaring the remediated site mostly ash-free. By then, the cleanup had taken six years and cost $1.2 billion.
“They made it nice is all I know,” says Johnny Church, 66, a retired laborer who shoveled coal ash at the spill site for four years. Unlike most, Church wore some protective gear while doing what he calls “all the dirty work” — a Tyvek suit, a dust mask. Now diagnosed with leukemia, he is among the 6 percent of 900 total cleanup workers who have signed onto the coal-ash lawsuits.
Taking in the well-groomed parkland, he says, “It looks nothing like it did when we were in it, breathing this stuff every day.”
In the aftermath of the TVA spill, the ash slurry — enough to fill 153 Olympic-sized swimming pools — extended 300 acres beyond the plant’s 84-acre “containment area,” forming “ash bergs” up to 60 feet tall. The Emory turned thick and brown, like a chocolate milkshake. On land, the ash hardened into gray craters and mounds resembling the surface of the moon.
Workers spent much of the ensuing four years moving the ash — 5.4 million cubic yards in all. They used dredging machines to scrape it, excavators to scoop it, bulldozers to shovel it. “It was like an assembly line of ash,” says Wilkinson, who, stationed atop a backhoe, pushed ash piles from the shore toward a platform, where the material was loaded onto railroad cars bound for an Alabama landfill.
Many remember being immersed in this slurry, wading in it up to their knees. The sludge, dense and constricting, pulled boots off their feet. Wet ash doused their clothes. By the end of a 12-hour shift, workers found the ash caked on their hands, face, hair and teeth. “It was like working in a mud hole,” says Ansol Clark, 65, a retired truck driver who, from 2009 to 2013, traversed the site all day, every day, delivering fuel to 350 pieces of machinery. He wore the standard garb: a hard hat, safety glasses, gloves.
Once the coal ash dried, a gray dust overtook the site. Workers say it coated even the biggest machines; inside cabs, it covered floorboards, dashboards, windows. Some recount flipping on the heat, only to get a blast of it in the face. To them, ash dust seemed to infiltrate everything — the lunch trailer, the portable toilets, their own cars.
Many describe it as having a chalky taste, a chemical smell. At night, ash particles hung in the air, shining like crystals in the sky.
Those on this early cleanup had little reason to wonder what those particles contained. No one in authority discussed the ash’s hazards at first, workers say. They say they remember Jacobs supervisors playing down the dangers, likening the ash to dirt. A former employee of a subcontractor who took orders from TVA managers backs up these claims.
“They actually told us we could eat two pounds a day,” head foreman Bradford Green testified in a deposition associated with one worker’s case. “It wouldn’t hurt you.”
Such assurances echoed the official word at the time. In the aftermath of the spill, TVA — a federally owned utility — issued multiple statements on potential health hazards posed by coal ash. All were reassuring. In a 2009 report examining the initial response to the disaster, the TVA’s inspector general criticized the utility’s release of “inaccurate and inconsistent information.” TVA public-relations employees, for example, took a red pen to one “talking points” memo, deleting references to the ash’s “risk to public health and risk to the environment” and inserting descriptions of it as “mostly . . . inert.”
“TVA was downplaying and denying . . . the disaster,” says Gregory Button, a retired anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee who has studied environmental calamities. He interviewed dozens of residents, workers and officials about the spill, and remembers utility employees and contractors insisting the ash was harmless.
“They thought they could gloss over it,” says Button, who wrote about what he calls the “doubt and misinformation” generated by TVA in a 2010 book about disaster culture.
Government data contradicted the TVA rhetoric. In December 2008, the EPA tested river water after the spill and found elevated levels of eight heavy metals. Arsenic was present in the Emory in concentrations 149 times safety standards. Independent scientists concurred. A team of researchers mostly from Duke University also detected contaminants — especially arsenic — in surface waters. They found high levels of arsenic and radium in the ash itself and warned that airborne dust could pose “a severe health impact on local communities and workers.”
“It was a double whammy or worse,” Laura Ruhl, the lead Duke researcher and now a University of Arkansas earth sciences professor, says of the combination of toxic metals and radioactivity.
Shea Tuberty, a biologist and environmental toxicologist at Appalachian State University, worked with another team of researchers assessing the ecological fallout in the Emory River from the TVA spill — 17 metals in the ash, including arsenic in concentrations up to 300 times safety standards. What alarmed him most, he says, were cenospheres, components of coal ash produced by the combustion process.
Tuberty likens cenospheres to Christmas tree ornaments: They are round, hollow particles that break into tiny, sharp fragments. They consist mostly of silica and aluminum. His analysis of the TVA ash showed that some cenospheres contained what he calls “really interesting gel bubbles.” That gel turned out to be iron oxide coated with arsenic at levels exceeding by the thousands the health thresholds for aquatic and human life.
Inhaled, these microscopic particles can cause damage in two ways, he says: by their sharp edges and by the toxic metals they harbor.
To Tuberty, the implications for cleanup workers seem obvious. “Somebody standing in the ash, shoveling it in the truck?” he asks. “If they weren’t wearing masks, forget it.”