In June 2019, during a Senate committee hearing, a Tennessee businessman named Bill Kilbride told four lawmakers that he would “absolutely not” allow a member of his family to clean up coal ash without a dust mask. He also agreed that coal ash can be dangerous if ingested or inhaled. Taken by themselves, these comments, first reported here by Men’s Journal, are not revelatory: It’s well known that coal ash, a by-product of burning coal to produce electricity, contains arsenic, lead, and a slew of other hazardous particles. But Kilbride was seeking Senate confirmation as a nominee for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s board of directors.
Created as part of the New Deal, T.V.A. is the nation’s largest public utility, operating six coal-fired power plants, three nuclear plants, and nearly 30 hydroelectric dams. As detailed in a recent story in Men’s Journal, on December 22, 2008, one of T.V.A.’s coal-fired power plants spewed a billion gallons of coal ash over 300 acres outside Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s now considered one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, given its scale. Following the spill, T.V.A. and Jacobs Engineering Group, the firm contracted by T.V.A. to oversee the cleanup, told the 900 men and women who responded to the disaster that the coal ash was safe and, with few exceptions, refused or failed to supply them with dust masks or respirators. Now, 40 of those workers are dead and at least 300 are ill. In November 2018, a federal court ruled that Jacobs’s handling of the cleanup could have possibly sickened the workers with leukemia, lung cancer, and coronary artery disease, among other illnesses.
T.V.A. and Jacobs Engineering both maintain that they did nothing wrong concerning the cleanup (litigation is ongoing) and that the coal ash posed no health hazard. Kilbride’s comments before the Senate broke with the latter, long-held position by T.V.A.
When reached by phone today, Kilbride stood by his past statements and said that he wants to learn more about the workers’ allegations. He hesitated to say whether he thought T.V.A. has a responsibility to help the sickened workers cover their medical expenses, should the allegations against Jacobs Engineering be further affirmed in court. But he did say that T.V.A., like any corporation, has an obligation to treat its employees well.
In the past, T.V.A. has favored a litigation strategy when faced with allegations of wrongdoing or negligence. But Kilbride said that if Jacobs or T.V.A. is found to have knowingly endangered the cleanup workers, “I don’t think I’ll have to encourage the board” to help them. He added, “I’d be very surprised if the board turned away from this.” Of his fellow T.V.A. board members, “these are good people,” he said. “I believe at the end of the day they’ll do the right thing.” (In response, a T.V.A. spokesperson said that board members are free to express their personal opinions but that Kilbride’s remarks do not reflect the organization’s official position.)
Since Men’s Journal‘s story about the 2008 coal-ash spill went to press, the magazine has made further discoveries about T.V.A. and Jacobs. T.V.A. falls partially under the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which has done little since 2009 to investigate T.V.A.’s handling of the 2008 coal-ash spill. Despite the November 2018 court ruling that Jacobs’s actions could have possibly harmed the cleanup workers, the chairman of the House committee, Peter Defazio, has accepted $3,000 from Jacobs in 2019 and has received $23,000 from it since 2008. In response to a request for comment, Carly Gabrielson, Chairman DeFazio’s campaign manager, said in an email, “Chairman DeFazio engages with Jacobs Engineering on projects related to surface transportation and wastewater in Oregon. He has never spoken with Jacobs about their involvement in the T.V.A. spill cleanup.”
Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, the chair of the subcommittee that directly oversees T.V.A, also continued to accept money from Jacobs Engineering following the November 2018 verdict. “I had no knowledge of Jacobs’s involvement in the cleanup of the spill,” she said in an email. “I have never spoken to Jacobs about this situation. I have worked with CH2M Engineering company, which was recently purchased by Jacobs, on water and transportation infrastructure projects in my district and California.”
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works shares jurisdiction over T.V.A. with the House, and its members have also continued to accept political donations from Jacobs. The senators include Jim Inhofe, Kevin Cramer, and Dan Sullivan. Tennessee Congressman Chuck Fleischmann—in whose district the 2008 coal-ash spill occurred—has accepted donations from Jacobs Engineering this year as well.
In response to Men’s Journal‘s recent story on the 2008 coal-ash spill, Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., an attorney for Jacobs, wrote in an email to the magazine, “Jacobs is confident that when all of the evidence is heard in court, it will be clear that none of the conditions claimed by plaintiffs were caused by coal ash—or by anything Jacobs did.”
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will be holding a hearing this month on clean water, during which coal ash will be discussed. Carly Gabrielson, Chairman DeFazio’s campaign manager, added in an email, “The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is holding T.V.A. accountable for the 2008 coal ash spill, especially as it concerns workers and public safety.”
Update. September 7, 11:40 a.m. EST: Quotes from Carly Gabrielson were added to this story after it was first published.