KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — UPDATE (Oct. 1): The lawsuit filed by Roane County and the cities of Kingston and Harriman against TVA and Jacobs Engineering was dismissed on Sept. 30. A district court in Knoxville found that the allegations were either deficient or barred by the statute of limitations.
TVA's new CEO said Thursday he's aware of a fresh lawsuit that alleges the utility giant has covered up the dangers of coal ash in the wake of the 2008 Roane County disaster but can't say much about it.
Jeff Lyash, on the job about 30 days, said the lawsuit by Roane County and the cities of Harriman and Kingston raises allegations that must be taken seriously.
"We need to get to the facts. The board and I are concerned about it – as we should be. We’ll work through it and determine what the real issues are,” he said.
Lyash spoke during a press call with reporters at the end of the TVA board's quarterly meeting, held in Franklin, Tennessee. He's been on the job about 30 days, replacing former CEO Bill Johnson.
The county and the cities filed the complaint Tuesday in Roane County Circuit Court. It's been in the works for months.
They allege TVA and Jacobs Engineering Inc., hired by TVA to clean up the massive coal ash spill from the TVA Kingston steam plant, tried to hide and downplayed the dangers of coal ash from the community at large and from workers. Coal ash contains toxic substances including arsenic.
Addressing the disaster cost TVA about $1.2 billion. Ten years later, the county and cities complain there are still health and environmental threats to their communities.
In fact, they say legacy hazardous materials left over from the burning of coal at the power plant continue to threaten the environment, "leaching" into the area's water supply.
"Due to (TVA's and Jacobs') actions...the entire Roane County community was harmed beyond what would have occurred if a competent and responsible remediator was performing the tasks required with integrity and efficiency, and without the callous and negligent, if not reckless, malicious or intentional disregard for human health and life employed by the defendants," the lawsuit states.
They seek restitution and damages at trial. They allege the clean-up was botched.
A cell holding liquid coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal, collapsed in December 2008 at the steam plant, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of the toxic liquid across the countryside and into two nearby rivers.
Residents in the Swan Pond community suffered in particular from the deluge of liquid coal ash that consumed the area.
Cleanup workers and families of former cleanup workers allege their health suffered from exposure to the dried muck. Some say they developed blood diseases and cancers; others died.
Dozens have filed a separate lawsuit in U.S. District Court blaming Jacobs Engineering for failing to warn them of health dangers and failing to do enough to protect them as they worked amid the coal ash. They allege Jacobs misled them about what the clean-up work.
The case is now in mediation between the former workers and Jacobs. TVA is not a defendant in the lawsuit.
Lyash offered the utility's sympathies Thursday for anyone whose health has suffered as a result of working on a TVA project, including those involved in the coal ash spill clean-up.
The courts are the right place to address allegations against Jacobs Engineering, he said.
"We'll monitor that and we'll take the right response if anything comes from that," he told reporters.
TVA signaled earlier this year in an SEC report that it would have to be prepared to potentially shoulder some of the costs assessed to Jacobs Engineering in the federal case.
Knoxville area Congressman Tim Burchett, a Republican, and Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, have been sharply critical of TVA's response to the spill, the litigation and its responses to concerns about the workers' health.
In January, the newly elected Burchett announced he was introducing legislation to make TVA more open.
According to his office, the bill seeks to require meetings and subcommittee meetings of the Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors to be transparent and open to the public.
The bill would amend the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933 Section 2(g)(2) to include a section on transparency. The “Tennessee Valley Authority Transparency Act of 2019,” as it may be cited, would require meetings of the TVA Board to be held in public, properly noticed, and make available minutes and summaries of each meeting.
Full, general TVA board meetings are open. Committee meetings are not.
On Wednesday, the day before its quarterly meeting, the board held a listening session to hear various concerns from anyone who wanted to speak. It plans to continue the practice.
Outgoing TVA Board Chair Richard Howorth alluded to the value of transparency Thursday morning during remarks to the TVA board. But, he said, some aspects of TVA operations should remain closed including economic development topics in which the utility is a competitor, nuclear topics and personnel matters.
Lyash echoed that sentiment in comments to reporters.
He said there's a balancing act between full openness as Burchett wants and trying to have enough privacy to conduct TVA business.
“I’m not sure that’s synonymous with open committee meetings," he said.