ROANE COUNTY, Tenn. — A Roane County grand jury announced Monday it had not found adequate reason for authorities to pursue state criminal charges against four men who oversaw the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster cleanup.
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 the Tennessee Valley Authority and contractor Jacobs Engineering 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.
The TBI had also investigated potential violations of state environmental law and reckless homicide, but concluded those violations were not prosecutable more than a decade after the incident.
Witnesses alleged the supervisors knew about the dangers of coal ash, saying they recklessly disregarded that danger and did not inform the 900-plus workers involved in the cleanup. Later, 258 workers sued Jacobs Engineering, saying they became sickened and that 54 workers died as a result of exposure to the ash.
Jacobs has consistently said its people did nothing wrong.
The four men named in the indictment were Tommy Lucas with the TVA, former Jacobs Engineering safety officials Sean Healey and Thomas Bock, and Harry Pullum with the Shaw Group.
The grand jury returned with a "spilt result" after listening to a full day of presentations from the office of District Attorney General Russell Johnson, the TBI and investigative reporter Jamie Satterfield.
Two of the 12 grand jurors voted in favor of filing criminal charges, but the foreman said they felt the evidence gathered would be better suited for federal authorities to investigate and prosecute.
"We were unable to come to a unanimous decision on any state criminal charge although we found much of the evidence about TVA & Jacobs’ handling of the cleanup, relative to worker safety, very concerning," the grand jury's foreman wrote.
Johnson said the federal Office of Inspector General would be better equipped to handle the investigation because the cleanup fell under federal jurisdiction.
“Based upon the written statement released by the Roane County Grand Jury, it would appear to me that they were reluctant to hold four site supervisors criminally responsible for something that the grand jurors evidently perceived to possibly be ‘sins’ of the employers given that they stated concerns ‘about TVA & Jacobs – handling of the cleanup, relative to worker safety,'” he said.
A different Roane County grand jury previously endorsed the chief prosecutor's push for the TBI to investigate how workers were treated during the massive cleanup of the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster.
In a handwritten addendum to the grand jury report, the panel said it heard more than five hours of testimony from three witnesses about the cleanup.
In December 2008, a holding cell at the TVA Kingston steam plant containing liquid coal ash collapsed, spreading slurry across hundreds of surrounding acres. The ash was the byproduct of burning coal to create energy.
TVA tapped Jacobs Engineering to hire workers to clean up the huge spill, which cost TVA more than $1 billion.
Workers allege they became sickened and some died as a result of exposure to the ash. Jacobs Engineering is fighting an ongoing lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Knoxville.
The workers or their families also allege Jacobs Engineering downplayed dangers of coal ash exposure and prevented them from taking steps to protect themselves. Jacobs has denied the allegations.
The handwritten grand jury report stated: "The grand jury concurred with the district attorney general's recommendation for him to predicate a TBI investigation into certain issues pertaining to clean-up worker safety e.g. alteration of air monitor results, other environmental tests and readings regarding the coal ash, failure to inform, protect and provide safety measures for cleanup workers, as well as to further pursue inquiry with (the state Department of Environment and Conservation), TVA and any possible state claims under the Clear Water Act."
TVA spokesman Scott Brooks issued a statement at the time in response to word of the grand jury's recommendation:
“We cannot overstate how important the safety and well-being of our teammates is to us. Safety is our highest priority and we take every precaution to keep our teammates – both our employees and contractors -- safe during operations at all TVA facilities.
“We work closely with independent regulators to ensure that we are meeting and even exceeding safety requirements, and to ensure the safe and responsible management of coal ash.
“We remain committed to safely serving the people of the Tennessee Valley."