Broken Ground | Season 1 | Episode 1

Tip of the Ashberg

The 2008 Kingston, Tennessee coal ash spill was disastrous at the time, but what came a decade later would reveal the full devastation of the tragedy.

Episode Transcript

The 2008 Kingston, Tennessee coal ash spill was disastrous at the time, but what came a decade later would reveal the full devastation of the tragedy.




By Emily Richardson-Lorente


CHRIS COPELAND/HOMEOWNER: I woke up to the awfullest noise and sound that I could imagine …


LESTER HOLT: Millions of tons of ash and sludge came pouring out …


LESLEY STAHL: The spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez …


ERIC SCHAEFFER, ENVIRONMENTAL INTEGRITY PROJECT: The prevailing myth is that it’s safe …


ROBERT SIEGEL/NPR: Arsenic levels more than one hundred times the acceptable amount …


RENEE MONTAGNE/NPR: In Kingston, Tennessee, efforts to clean up a giant spill of coal ash are going day and night …


JAMIE SATTERFIELD/KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL: There is nothing to warn these workers — there’s not signs, there’s not pamphlets, there’s nothing …


JEFF BREWER/CLEAN-UP WORKER: The eyes was burning, the headaches, the coughing up of that jelly junk …


JAMIE SATTERFIELD: And now they’re sick and dying and no one will take responsibility for it …


HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South and the people unearthing them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain and before I jumped headfirst into environmental issues, I was a producer and editor for more than a decade at NPR. I worked on really tight deadlines, but the kind of information I dig into now can take months and sometimes years to unravel.

In this episode, we go digging for the story of coal ash. That’s the toxic substance left over when coal is burned to make electricity. In America, we make about 130 million tons of it a year. It’s enough to fill a million train cars. If you’ve never thought about coal ash or where it ends up, you’re not alone; I never had. And I don’t think that the Copeland family ever thought about it either. And they lived right across the water from a coal-fired power plant in Kingston, Tennessee. That plant was run by the Tennessee Valley Authority — they’re better known as TVA — and it was making tons of coal ash every day.



CHRIS COPELAND: “You think that they know what they’re doing and that everything’s safe and that they’re keeping an eye on it.”


HOST: That’s Chris Copeland in a 2008 interview. He grew up fishing, swimming, playing on the Swan Pond, right there next to the coal-fired power plant. He planned on living there the rest of his life, raising his two daughters there, growing old there. And then everything changed three days before Christmas in 2008.



CHRIS COPELAND, HOMEOWNER: I woke up to the awfullest noise and sound that I could imagine. I could hear crashing and popping, the noise — the wind was incredible, seemed like it generated its own wind.


HOST: I mean, imagine that. It’s the middle of the night, the power’s out, so Chris Copeland throws on his clothes and he scrambles outside.


CHRIS: Didn’t have any lights back there so I got in the car and drove in the backyard and shined the headlights in the backyard and it was just unbelievable. Clumps of earth as big as our house were in the cove behind us.


HOST: Those clumps of earth that he’s describing are actually huge mounds of coal ash. They’d come to be known as “ashbergs,” but he calls 911 and says there’s a mudslide.



911 OPERATOR: Roane County 911.


CHRIS: Yes, I’m over at Swan Pond, and there’s a heck of a mudslide or something that came through our backyard. I mean there is – it’s unbelievable, it’s a whole — we live on a cove back here, and it is full of mud.


HOST: Other neighbors start calling. They’re confused. They don’t know what’s going on. Finally emergency responders head to the scene.



DISPATCHER: All units responding to Swan Pond Circle. Kingston PD officer advising the dykes have fallen, the dykes have fallen and covered the railroad tracks …


HOST: She’s saying, ‘the dykes have fallen.’ What she means is that a six-story dirt wall that’s meant to keep the coal ash sludge on the power plant property and out of the river has given way.

I want to stop here for a minute and ask an obvious question that I asked when I first learned about coal ash ponds: why would utility companies tempt fate by putting coal ash on the edge of a river? It seems like a pretty dangerous thing to do. But when I learned more about power plants, I understood why.

Power plants are built near water because they need lots of it to operate. River water is often key to keeping a power plant cool. Coal ash, a by-product of burning coal, accumulates quickly. And shipping it to a landfill costs more than keeping it on site — so most power plant operators choose to leave it where it is and instead store the coal ash in open-air, water-filled dirt pits. It’s called “wet storage” and, to this day, hundreds of power plants across the country do this. And that was the same method used at the Kingston Fossil plant.

Though the ash pond at Kingston had passed a TVA inspection seven months earlier, the 60-foot dirt wall gave way overnight. It released nearly 50 years’ worth of coal ash into the Emory and Clinch Rivers. The next day, everyone would see just how epic of a disaster it was, and the news coverage would demonstrate that.


LESTER HOLT: Millions of tons of ash and sludge came pouring out when a dyke at a coal plant gave way this week …


ROBERT SEIGEL/NPR: An unnatural disaster along the Clinch River, a spill of sludge …


CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY: … releasing a tidal wave of coal sludge into the area.


TAMARA KEITH/NPR: The ash coats a half mile square — sometimes as deep as 10 or 12 feet …


LESLEY STAHL/CBS: The spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez and it was ALL coal ash.


HOST: Relatively speaking, the homeowners were lucky. A dozen homes were swamped by ash and three were destroyed but no one was injured or killed. They were lucky that it was the middle of night in winter. Had it been summer, a nice day when people might have been playing in the pond, things could have gone so differently.

As this disaster unfolds, people across the country, like the people in Kingston, are learning what coal ash is. They’re learning that EPA didn’t regulate this hazardous waste, even though, as far back as 1980, Congress was asking the agency if it should. NPR reporter Elizabeth Shogren interviewed Matt Hale, the head of the EPA’s solid waste office, about this lack of oversight.



ELIZABETH SHOGREN: So basically EPA has been studying this problem for twenty-eight years is that right?


MATT HALE: That’s right, yeah.


ELIZABETH: Why has it taken so long?


MATT: There’s been a considerable amount of technical work, simply the processes require this amount of time.

HOST: Environmentalists like Eric Schaeffer, head of the Environmental Integrity Project, called B.S. on all of this.



ERIC SCHAEFFER, ENVIRONMENTAL INTEGRITY PROJECT: The prevailing myth is that it’s safe. We have EPA sort of buying into that for many years and really refusing to regulate this material for what it is, which is highly toxic ash that leaches metals like arsenic and cadmium and mercury into drinking water and into rivers and creeks.


HOST: And so now, as homeowners in Kingston are actually learning what’s in coal ash, they are understandably starting to freak out. They’re hearing that it has things in it like mercury, cadmium, chromium, selenium, aluminum, antimony, barium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, nickel, thallium, and vanadium. Heavy metals like these — even trace amounts — lead to health problems. Which is why it’s shocking when TVA’s Anda Ray, who was their environmental executive at the time, goes on to 60 Minutes and basically equates coal ash to dirt



ANDA RAY: I’d say that the constituents, the things that are in the coal ash, are the same things that are naturally occurring in soil and rock.


LESLIE STAHL: So is it like dirt? Would you say that? Would you say that sentence: ‘That stuff is like dirt’?


ANDA: That’s – that ash material is higher than dirt in two areas and that is arsenic and thallium.


HOST: Let’s talk about arsenic and thallium. Arsenic causes skin lesions and cancer. It’s linked to heart disease and diabetes. Thallium can cause problems with the nervous system, headaches, fatigue, sleep disorders. People in Kingston are starting to talk — what would happen if this stuff got into their drinking water? So, four days after the spill, with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s PR machine up and running, spokesman John Moulton assures residents.



JOHN MOULTON, TVA SPOKESMAN: Our sampling has determined that there’s been NO INDICATION that the water would not meet drinking water standards.


HOST: I’m not sure what he meant by “NO INDICATION”, but soon officials were flip-flopping from day to day as to whether the local water was safe to drink. Understandably, Kingston residents were becoming skeptical. Then the mayor of Kingston, Troy Beets, decides he’s going to set his community’s mind at ease during a press conference by pulling a little stunt.



TROY BEETS, MAYOR OF KINGSTON, TN: This is a cup of Kingston City water that came from my house and out of my tap and I just want to drink it for you right here. And I’m going to be fine. (laughter)


HOST: Mayor Beets hoped his city would bounce back quickly, and TVA implied it would.



LESTER HOLT: Any estimate as to how long it would take to clean all this up?


ANNE THOMPSON: They are being fairly optimistic at this point. They’re hoping to have … the entire area cleaned up within six weeks.

HOST: If you look at the photos from the time of the spill, six weeks is insane. Six weeks was never going to happen. It doesn’t matter how many dump trucks they had working around the clock. The stuff was deep, and it was everywhere. In the end, it didn’t take weeks, or even months. It took years — SIX YEARS before the EPA declared that the job was good enough. And though much of the coal ash was shipped to landfills in Alabama and Georgia, TVA said 500,000 tons was too hard to remove from the river, and so it’s still there today. As for the cost of the 6 years of cleanup? 1.7 billion dollars, which utility customers in Tennessee are still paying for.

But there are people who had to pay a much higher price. Earlier we said that people in Kingston were so lucky no one died because of this coal ash spill. Well, that’s no longer true.


JAMIE SATTERFIELD: There’s going to be a lot of widows, a lot of widowers. It doesn’t matter what I report and it doesn’t matter what happens in this case; there’s going to be a lot of people whose families are going to suffer.


HOST: That’s Jamie Satterfield. She’s an award winning investigative reporter for The Knoxville News Sentinel and she’s been covering the story of the workers who cleaned up the Kingston coal ash spill.


JAMIE: When the spill first happened, there was a crush of media, there was a crush of environmental groups. All of the focus was on the community, the impact on the community. No one — including my own news organization — cast a glance over at the workers. So we’re writing stories that this stuff might be terribly dangerous, it might be, you know, um, but nobody is going, ‘Why aren’t those workers in suits?’ You know? ‘Why is the EPA guys all Tyveked out and the workers aren’t?’ Nobody questioned that.


CLAUDINE: They didn’t have any protective gear when they were working out there?


JAMIE: No, none at all. Your basic hard hat, your, you know, shiny vest and blue jeans and t-shirts. That’s what they were working in.


HOST: Directly after the December spill, EPA workers show up in their Tyvek hazmat suits to assess the damage. They do some testing and they become concerned for the safety of workers who are going to need to be knee-deep in coal ash day after day. But by February, the EPA turns the cleanup job over to TVA, and TVA brings on a contractor called Jacobs Engineering to help. And now that Jacobs was managing the coal ash removal, the workers’ safety was in their hands, But Jamie says the workers were kept in the dark.


JAMIE: They were never told that it was dangerous. They were told that there was nothing wrong with this stuff, that they could eat a pound of it a day and still be safe. Well, that just on its face didn’t make sense, right? Because what I had discovered is the American Coal Ash Association doesn’t even make that kind of claim. I thought, surely to goodness, a responsible government contractor is not going to lie in that fashion.


CLAUDINE: When you first started looking into the cases of these workers, were you skeptical?


JAMIE: Yes, I was skeptical and of course as an investigative reporter, I always go into an investigation, um, with this idea that this is probably NOT true. It just makes me look a little harder at things. And um, so I was skeptical. I needed proof. So by the third interview, I got it. A worker had secretly videoed, um, conversations with supervisors out on that site in which the supervisors could be heard very clearly telling them that their breathing problems were pollen, not the ash, that this stuff was safe.



JACOBS ENGINEERING EMPLOYEE: I don’t think it’s the ash, because I’ve got the same allergy problems that I’ve never had before and I talked to my doctor and it’s not the ash. It’s the pollen this year, it’s horrible. It’s the pollen.




JACOBS ENGINEERING EMPLOYEE: Give it a couple more weeks, take an Allegra or two.


JAMIE: There were secret recordings about them being told that if they pressed this issue, if they demanded protective gear, they would lose their jobs.


COAL ASH WORKER: You think I’d hang myself?




JAMIE: And bear in mind this is good money for these people, these are working people and this is good money. TVA pays well.




COAL ASH WORKER: Don’t what?


JACOBS ENGINEERING EMPLOYEE: Don’t hang yourself with your own (bleep).


JAMIE: Once I got those videos, I was off to the races.


HOST: Okay, let’s pause for a second here. Maybe at this point you’re thinking, like I am, why wouldn’t a company do something, even something minimal like a face mask, to keep workers safe and to keep the company from getting sued. Here’s what Jamie thinks is going on.


JAMIE: It was a PR nightmare. So the last thing you want is for your community out there and you’re telling them that everything’s safe, we’re keeping you safe, we’re checking your water, we’re doing all these things, don’t worry, how worrisome it would have been for the community if they look over at the site and they see hundreds of workers outfitted in Tyvek suits, right? And respirators and this scary-looking gear. It would look as if the stuff was really dangerous. So they did not want to scare the community. And as a result they knowingly threatened the lives of these workers.


HOST: Later investigations would show that in a meeting with the EPA five months after the cleanup started, Jacobs Engineering insisted that their testing showed hazmat gear was NOT necessary to do this work.


JAMIE: EPA did two things at that meeting. One, they made no requirement whatsoever for protective gear for these workers, so they laid down on that issue, they gave up on that issue. And the other thing that they did, EPA did, was to cave to TVA and they actually removed wording from signs around the site meant to warn the public. They actually had them remove the words “hazardous waste.” So by May 2009, there is nothing to warn these workers. There’s not signs, there’s not pamphlets, there’s nothing.


HOST: Jamie began investigating all this in 2016, two years after the cleanup ended. She started one worker after another who was suffering from a variety of health problems — workers like Jeff Brewer, who was perfectly healthy when he started working on site. Here he is in a deposition describing the symptoms he says he began experiencing from the coal ash.



JEFF BREWER: The eyes was burning, the headaches, the coughing up of that jelly junk, the swelling in my legs, the rashes of that stuff on my body, uh, the breathing …


HOST: And Jamie says there are hundreds of cleanup workers who are having the same symptoms. John Cox developed a debilitating cough that he couldn’t shake. And after months and months and rounds of antibiotics, his doctor finally sent him to a specialist.



JOHN COX: “And his first question was, ‘Well, you wear a respirator, don’t you?’ And I looked at him and said, ‘No, they say we don’t need one, that this won’t hurt us.’ And he’s like, ‘Awwww, this will KILL you.’”


HOST: Eventually John Cox quit, but hundreds of his co-workers stayed on, working 12 to 15 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week until the end of the cleanup.


JAMIE: So since then, we now have over 200 workers who are sick with either chronic or fatal conditions. And I have over 30 who are dead.


CLAUDINE: Just now you said, “I have over 30 who are dead” and I’ve heard you, in the past, refer in other interviews to workers you’ve reported on as “my coal ash workers.” Has this story become personal for you?


JAMIE: Oh, absolutely. You know, I — give me just a second. Every time I sit down with these people, it is so wrong what happened to them. They showed up for work and they trusted their employers and now they’re sick and dying and no one will take responsibility for it. They were expendable. Nobody really paid attention or cared about them.


HOST: But as you can hear, Jamie cared about them. And she told me this story. She had just finished interviewing a man whose wife had developed brain cancer and actually died while working as a flagger at the cleanup site. Jamie left that interview to meet a new couple who had just learned about the lawsuit from one of her articles. The husband had worked on the cleanup site too.


JAMIE: And he had been having some symptoms but they didn’t connect it to the work, right? So I go out there and I’m in their living room and he was telling me about some of the symptoms he was having and it was exactly like the lady who died. And so — I’ve never done this in my career — I looked over, I had a photographer with me and I had — I said, “I’m going to let him video you, so keep talking.” And I pulled his wife aside and I said, “Has he been tested, um, for neurological conditions?” And she said, “No,” and you know, you could see this fright on her face. And I said, “Get him tested, get him tested,” and I cried all the way home. Um, and he has been, he’s been tested. He’s now part of this lawsuit and he is now officially dying.


HOST: The lawsuit was brought against Jacobs Engineering by the workers — many of whom are sick with chronic illnesses like cancer, congestive heart failure, and pulmonary disease — all of which are consistent with heavy metal poisoning. In November of 2018, a jury ruled in favor of the workers, who can now seek damages from the firm.


CLAUDINE: What did you know of coal ash before you started looking into these cases?


JAMIE: You know, I knew absolutely nothing about coal ash. My daddy was a coal miner. But the danger of the ash itself, um, what was in the ash, I had, I had no idea when I started this project.


CLAUDINE: Had you thought about, um, environmental issues before you started working on this particular case?


JAMIE: You know, I have to confess I’m, I’m pretty much a, a red meat republican, you know, I mean, that’s just the truth. And environmental stuff was just not something I paid a great deal of attention to. That’s as honest as I can be about it. But, I would like people who are like me, you know, that are just average working people and you think, eh, the environment, you know, they’re just tree huggers, that kinda thing. You know, it really is incumbent on us to make sure that coal ash is regulated for what it is, which is a hazardous waste, in which no worker ought to be toiling without protective gear. It should not be stored in a haphazard manner. It should be treated as the dangerous toxic substance that it is.


HOST: While the 2008 spill at TVA’s Kingston, Tennessee plant became a sort of poster child for the havoc wreaked by coal ash, it still wasn’t enough to prompt the EPA to change its storage rules, or even to officially declare coal ash a hazardous substance.

In fact, six years later, when another spill occurred — this time in North Carolina — the regulations were still only in development. Federal rules were finally official in 2015, but are now being rolled back by the Trump administration.




HOST: Join us next time as we head to North Carolina to meet the “Real Housewives of Coal Ash.”


NINA EARNEST: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s put together by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Nina Earnest, Jennie Daley and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. The archival interview clips you heard in this episode were found at the Knoxville News Sentinel and NPR.