TVA Coal Ash Spill Offers Lessons for NC

In December 2008, a massive coal ash storage pond dam in Kingston, Tennessee, suffered a catastrophic failure. Tons of toxic coal ash spilled downstream, with terrible environmental consequences. A major cleanup operation was launched.

Today, 54 of the workers involved in the cleanup are dead, and hundreds more are sick. In a legal case against the contractor they worked for and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that contracted with it, survivors say their illnesses are a result of working without adequate protective gear while cleaning up toxic and radioactive coal ash.

They’ve provided evidence that their employers knew about the risk and failed to protect them according to industry legal standards. Both the cleanup contractor for which they worked and TVA are under the legal gun today for allegedly lying to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the facts — and for attempting to cover up the deception. OSHA itself has destroyed records about complaints that were made at the time and that were not adequately investigated or acted upon.

This case stands as a perfect example of why effective regulatory oversight and strong workplace protections are essential to environmental justice, and how badly workers can suffer when they do not get such protections. It leaves us with concern for North Carolinians as well, given our coal ash waste legacy and anti-labor legal environment which depresses worker protections.

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