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Lawyers in coal ash court fight seek more time to find mediator

Senior U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan wants the cleanup firm and its former workers to try mediation in lieu of protracted litigation.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Lawyers for the firm entrusted with cleaning up the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster and the former employees now suing it are asking for more time to pick a mediator to help them resolve the dispute.

Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan had imposed a Jan. 19 deadline for Jacobs Engineering and lawyers representing the workers to propose a mediator. 

But on Tuesday, court records show, both sides submitted the request for more time.

"The parties have been earnestly working together to identify a mediator or mediators they can agree upon and believe that with additional time they will be able to do so," the motion states.

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The workers want compensation from Jacobs, hired by TVA after a dike failed, sending liquid coal ash spilling into the surrounding countryside. They say they were sickened by exposure to toxins and that Jacobs failed to protect them from the dangers and misled them about what they faced in the cleanup.

Some have since died.

Credit: WBIR

In November, a federal jury agreed Jacobs' actions may have endangered the workers. But that was only the first phase of the litigation; now the workers can seek damages.

Varlan in January told lawyers he wanted to try mediation as a way to resolve workers' claims in a more speedy manner. He gave them a month to pick a mediator.

He also ordered them to then take 150 days to mediate in good faith.

TVA is not a defendant in the lawsuit. TVA hired Jacobs to oversee the cleanup, and it has acknowledged it may end up bearing some costs in the lawsuit.

The disaster cost more than $1 billion to address.

On Feb. 7, U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett of Knoxville and U.S. Rep.Steve Cohen of Memphis sent TVA a letter requesting answers about TVA's handling of the disaster and possible exposure to Jacobs' costs.

TVA is supposed to make life better in the Tennessee Valley, they wrote. For some who worked the spill, it's worse.

Burchett's office said this week so far they've not received a response from TVA.

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