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People gather to remember victims of the Kingston coal ash spill, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history

13 years later, people gathered in downtown Knoxville to remember workers who died after cleaning toxic coal ash that spilled in Kingston.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Ahead of the holidays, people gathered in downtown Knoxville at the TVA towers to remember and honor lost loved ones following the 2008 Kingston coal ash spill. The tragedy is known as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, and the memorial on Wednesday marked its 13th anniversary.

On Dec. 22, 2008, toxic coal ash was unleashed from the TVA plant in Roane County. It was after midnight with frigid temperatures dipping to 12 degrees when the wall collapsed on the massive ponds where TVA stored the leftover ash from burning decades of coal.

The breach unleashed an avalanche of more than a billion gallons of sludge into neighborhoods and the Emory River. The TVA worked with Jacobs Engineering to clean up the spill, but advocates said that the long-term effects of coal ash soon started revealing themselves.

More than 50 workers who helped clean up the spill have passed away, according to organizers of the vigil. They lit candles, prayed and spoke in honor of the workers. Hundreds of others are now sick with different kinds of cancer, according to advocates.

Workers later sued Jacobs Engineering, saying that supervisors knew about the dangers of coal ash but recklessly disregarded that danger. They claimed that workers, more than 900 in total, were not told about the dangers during the cleanup.

Jacobs Engineering has consistently said its people did nothing wrong. In November, a Roane County grand jury also declined to indict four supervisors in the lawsuit.

Before returning what's called a "no true bill," the grand jury considered indicting the men for conspiracy to commit second-degree murder following a TBI investigation into how officials handled the cleanup, with the indictment specifically focusing on supervisors tampering and hiding evidence related to the dangers of coal ash and its impact on workers' health.

"Hundreds of workers spent years cleaning up their coal ash," said one of the speakers at Wednesday's event. "Workers spent years cleaning up their coal ash. They were denied protective equipment, they were told the coal ash was safe to work in, but in reality, coal ash is full of toxic heavy metals."

It cost TVA more than $1 billion to clean the area up and left a legacy of ash remnants resting along the bottom of the Emory River. The utility giant also gave millions to the community to help make amends, and it bought about 180 properties affected by the spill.

The disaster is considered one of the worst manmade environmental calamities in U.S. history. It continues to draw national scrutiny, including a 2019 story by "National Geographic."