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TVA preparing 'comprehensive response' to questions about coal ash disaster contractor

U.S. Reps. Tim Burchett and Steve Cohen on Thursday made public a letter sent to TVA raising questions about their use of a cleanup contractor after the 2008 spill.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — UPDATE 5 PM FEBRUARY 8: The Tennessee Valley Authority is preparing a "comprehensive response" to questions raised by Tennessee Congressmen Tim Burchett and Steve Cohen about how the utility giant handled the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster and cleanup.

Spokesman Jim Hopson told 10News on Friday once TVA had finished reviewing the Burchett-Cohen letter and preparing their answers with "factual information" their response would become public.

Burchett, R-Knoxville, and Cohen, D-Memphis, made public a letter Thursday sent to TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson.

Newly elected Burchett and veteran Cohen are probing why TVA hired Jacobs Engineering, now involved in protracted federal litigation with former cleanup workers who allege Jacobs misled them about exposure to life-threatening substances amid the coal ash cleanup.

Jacobs and the former cleanup workers suing it have been ordered to try to resolve health compensation claims by federal mediation.

 Workers say they've suffered from maladies such as leukemia and cancers. Family members say some workers died after breathing and being around toxic substances in the coal ash such as arsenic and mercury.

PREVIOUS STORY: Tennessee Congressmen Tim Burchett and Steve Cohen are demanding answers from TVA about its handling of the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster including its hiring of a cleanup contractor now involved in protracted litigation with workers who say they've been sickened by exposure to toxic substances.

Burchett, R-Knoxville, and Cohen, D-Memphis, made public Thursday a letter they've sent to TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson. They pose seven questions, including whether it's true TVA offered bonuses to contractor Jacobs Engineering "to not file any reports of workers being harmed."

In a Jan. 31 Securities and Exchange Commission filing, TVA disclosed it could face covering legal costs if Jacobs is made to pay out money to sick former cleanup workers.

"We were alarmed by the Tennessee Valley Authority's recent announcement that ratepayers may have to pay for Jacobs Engineering's misdeeds during its disaster cleanup at TVA's Kingston plant, despite Jacobs' own admission that it lied to workers about the level of risk to which they were ultimately exposed," their letter to Johnson begins.

TVA's "irresponsible actions," the letter states, appear to sickened at least 400 people and led to the deaths of multiple workers "including at least two TVA employees..."

TVA said Thursday it had just received the letter and was reviewing its response.

Dozens of workers sued Jacobs in 2013 alleging they'd been misled about the danger of the substances they were exposed to while working at the giant coal ash spill site. In November, a U.S. District Court jury found Jacobs may have exposed workers to numerous health problems such as leukemia.

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TVA was not a defendant in the November trial. It hired Jacobs to handle the clean-up. But in a recent filing with the SEC, TVA signaled that it could face liability.

"Depending on the outcome of mediation, the litigation will proceed to the second phase on the question of whether Jacobs’s failures did in fact cause the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries and damages," TVA's note states.

"While TVA is not a party to this litigation, TVA could be contractually obligated to reimburse Jacobs for some amounts that Jacobs is required to pay as a result of this litigation.

"Further, TVA will continue monitoring this litigation to determine whether this or similar cases could have broader implications for the utility industry."

Burchett tweeted Thursday afternoon the residents of Roane County in particular shouldn't be penalized as TVA ratepayers with having to pay to help Jacobs if it's found liable in future court decisions.

"No one in TVA's service area, especially those in Roane County, caused this problem and it adds insult to injury expecting the citizens to account for someone else’s liability. These folks shouldn’t be expected to pay for it, that responsibility falls on the contractor," Burchett wrote.

U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan has directed the cleanup workers and Jacobs to pick a mediator and proceed with mediation. They've got about two weeks left to pick the mediator and until this summer to attempt to resolve damage claims through mediation.

Burchett and Cohen raise several questions in their letter Thursday.

First, they write, if allegations are true that Jacobs has a spotty record regarding worker safety lawsuits, why did TVA hire the engineering firm to begin with? Further, they ask, what guarantees did Jacobs give that it would ensure the safety of workers and the community?

Credit: WBIR

"After it was uncovered that Jacobs Engineering supervisors admitted under oath that they lied to the estimated 900 workers employed at the height of the cleanup effort about the dangers of coal ash, why does TVA still have a $200 million business relationship with Jacobs that involves worker safety?" their letter states.

The letter also probes TVA's position on the dangers of coal ash and how it responded once workers began complaining of becoming sick.

The congressmen also ask about "the environment impact of the recently closed coal ash storage areas at the former Allen Fossil Plant on the Memphis Sans aquifer?"

The utility, which serves seven states and some 10 million customers, has been moving away in recent years from using coal to fire its energy plants. Burning coal produces an ash that holds a variety of toxins such as mercury and arsenic.

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