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Coal ash disaster: 12 years later, former workers say they're still suffering

The collapse of a cell holding liquid coal ash caused the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

KINGSTON, Tenn. — Twelve years after the disaster, the massive Kingston coal ash spill continues to stain East Tennessee lives.

Clean-up workers and their families are still waging a legal fight in U.S. District Court in Knoxville to recover damages for what they say was negligence by clean-up contractor Jacobs Engineering.

Workers allege they've suffered long-term health damage from exposure to toxic elements in the ash, a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity, such as arsenic and lead. They accuse Jacobs of failing to take proper steps to protect them.

Other workers have died, felled by cancers developed after toiling in the ash fields, plaintiffs allege.

The spill happened on a bitter Monday night, Dec. 22, 2008. A holding cell loaded with liquid coal ash at the steam plant failed, spilling the liquid into rivers and destroying Swan Pond neighborhood homes and properties.

Jacobs says it took adequate steps on behalf of the hundreds of people it hired to rid the countryside around the Kingston steam plant of acres of ash. TVA operates the plant but isn't a defendant in the ongoing litigation.

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".

A second legal phase in the workers' now seven-year fight against Jacobs is set to proceed in 2021, although the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may slow progress in federal court.

This week, the non-profit East Tennessee Foundation announced it was joining with the University of Tennessee Medical Center to offer free evaluation, diagnosis and treatment planning for former clean-up workers, who say neither Jacobs nor TVA have helped with their health maladies.

Foundation President and CEO Mike McClamroch said in a statement: “It’s long overdue for the Knoxville community to extend a helping hand to these long-suffering workers."

The effort, dubbed the Kingston Workers Project, is backed by the Stewart Family Fund. John and Nancy Stewart, longtime Democratic activists, are advisers of the fund.

John Stewart, of Knoxville, said in a statement he and his wife hope the project will help.

"This is a great example of East Tennesseans caring about each other in time of need and doing something about it.”