One of the greatest scandals of America’s worst ecological disaster, the Exxon Valdez spill, was the hidden human cost of the disaster.
Thousands of clean-up workers needlessly died from a toxic combination of crude oil, chemicals and breathing a fine toxic mist made worse by hot water hosing. The workers also cleaned up the oil without adequate protective clothing and health and safety checks.
One of the irrepressible critics of the oil industry in Alaska, Dr. Riki Ott undertook a three year investigation into the matter.
At the end Ott concluded “there are, unquestionably and undeniably, people who have died, and people who are suffering from chronic health problems stemming from wrongful exposure during the clean-up.” Ott argued that Exxon “covered-up mass chemical poisoning of the clean-up workers”.
You would have hoped that since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, America would have learnt lessons. But the scandal of fossil fuel clean-up workers who have needlessly died and are still suffering, continues.
Just before Christmas on December 22, 2008, a billion gallons of coal ash – containing a toxic mix of arsenic, lead, mercury – was released at Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant after an earthen dam collapsed, some 36 miles south of Kentucky. The spilled ash covered nearly 300 acres in grey coal ash goo. In some places it was sixty feet deep.
The disaster made headlines around the world. It remains one of America’s worst industrial disasters. But the lessons of the Exxon Valdez have not been learnt.
Once again there was a huge gap between the rhetoric of concern from the company and the reckless reality faced by the cleanup workers.
Early the following year, in January 2009, testifying to the US Senate, Tom Kilgore, TVA’s then President and CEO committed to “a first-rate job of containment and remediation of the problems caused by the spill. We are going to be able to look our neighbors in the eye and say that TVA is doing the right thing.”
It took six years and over a billion dollars to clean up the mess. But TVA did not do the right thing. Just like Exxon had done, TVA downplayed the risks of the disaster. The company treated it as a public relations problem. The company’s PR personnel deleted references to the ash’s “risk to public health and risk to the environment” and inserting descriptions of it as “mostly… inert.”
The workers were told everything was safe.
It was far from it.
During the clean-up, the workers staggered knee deep in the coal ash gunk for hours on end, many without dust masks and with safety gear consisting “of nothing more than short-sleeved T-shirts, jeans, work boots and vinyl reflective vests.”
The area was so toxic it was declared a superfund site full of a toxic soup of arsenic, beryllium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, zinc, cadmium, selenium, thallium, antimony, silver and vanadium oxide. Soon the soup turned to fly ash with toxic dust everywhere.
And then the workers started to get sick. And just like the Exxon Valdez workers before them who began developing flu-like symptoms, so did the coal ash clean-up workers.
As the Center Public Integrity reported last year: “So many workers developed the same respiratory condition that they began calling it the “fly ash flu.”
According to Public Integrity: “By the end of a 12-hour shift, workers found the ash caked on their hands, face, hair, and teeth … Once the coal ash dried, a gray dust overtook the site. Workers say it coated even the biggest machines; inside cabs, it covered floorboards, dashboards, windows. Some recount flipping on the heat, only to get a blast of it in the face. To them, ash dust seemed to infiltrate everything—the lunch trailer, the portable toilets, their own cars.”
In 2013, dozens of workers and their spouses sued the primary contractor for the Kingston cleanup, charging that the company knew about the ash’s risks but had failed to protect them, just like had happened with the Exxon Valdez.
According to the complaint, workers were sickened by “continuous, unlawful exposure to… hazardous substances associated with the toxic ash.” It alleges they were given “inadequate safety training” and not given the right protective clothing.
One worker is Craig Wilkinson, who worked on the site for 12 months. By 2014, his vision “grew dull, his head dizzy”, reported Public Integrity. “Within months, he experienced a cough so persistent that it left him gasping for breath. By 2012, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung ailment.”
When he went to a specialist treatment center, Wilkinson’s urine samples tests revealed the presence of 11 metals, including unusually high levels of lead, mercury and uranium. He now uses six liters of oxygen to breathe a day and needs a $1 million double lung transplant. Wilkinson later told USA TODAY Network-Tennessee he “doubts he’ll be around to see a trial … He’s dying as he waits.”
Another retired worker, Jonny Church, who shoveled coal ash out of bulldozer tracks and hosed it off dump truck fenders, started getting fatigued with achy bones and tingling sensation spread across his hands and feet. He was diagnosed with leukemia that his doctor would later attribute to “his exposures to acute concentrations of chemicals in the ash spill.”
Another retired truck driver, Ansol Clark, 65, started getting chest pains and collapsed on his bedroom floor. Two years ago, he suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, with his symptoms linker to coal ash exposure. His colleague, John Cox, a 54-year-old truck driver, spent four years cleaning up coal ash. By 2013, he was on medication for chronic bronchitis.
So far 51 workers have come forward to file claims against Jacobs Engineering, one of the companies which organised the clean-up for TVA. Dozens have respiratory and pulmonary problems. Some have developed cancer. At least 17 workers have died, with dozens more dying.
“I call them ‘the expendables,’” Janie Clark, a wife of a one of those workings who health is failing told the USA TODAY Network. “These men were treated like collateral damage, and they fell between the cracks in this toxic place.” One victim was Mike Shelton of Decatur, Tenn who had “reported to work in 2010 a healthy man,” subsequently “died in 2015 after he was diagnosed with lung and adrenal cancer.”
One of the firms brought in to help in the litigation is Neal & Harwell from Nashville, which worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
A trial date is set for next year. And just like the Exxon Valdez, some plaintiffs never got to see justice. Their day in court came too late.