A federal district court jury in Knoxville, Tenn., has found Jacobs Engineering Group guilty of failing to protect the health of workers who cleaned up the massive 2008 coal-ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston, Tenn., coal-fired power plant. This could enable cleanup crew members at the site to seek damages from the company. 

The jury in a suit filed by a group of workers found that Jacobs did not exercise reasonable care under its contract, estimated at more than $40 million, with federal power producer TVA to restore some property damaged by the spill, a breach of that contract.

As a result, workers have reported illnesses, including lung cancer and leukemia. About 5.4 million cu yd of coal ash spilled from a plant containment cell across 300 acres and into two rivers. TVA spent more than $1 billion on the cleanup.

Press reports about the trial said witnesses testified that more than 30 workers hired for cleanup under the Jacobs contract have died and about 250 others are sick or dying.

The trial was the lawsuit’s first phase. A second phase will determine financial settlement terms. The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported that TVA agreed to pay Jacobs’ defense bills under its contract but could not confirm if that applied to the workers’ suits.

A Jacobs spokeswoman said the firm is not at liberty to comment on legal matters, and a TVA spokesman says contract terms are confidential. TVA was not a party to the lawsuit and commented only that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers coal ash a non-hazardous waste.

Tennessee Rep.-elect Tim Burchett (R) said he may seek a new spill-response probe.

An attorney for 50 workers who filed suit did not return ENR’s request for an interview. Plaintiffs claimed Jacobs willfully exposed them to toxic fly ash, which included arsenic and radium.

Based on worker statements, Jacobs “engaged in intentional improper air monitoring of fly ash in violation of federal and state laws,” said the 2013 complaint. It states that workers were intentionally deprived of adequate safety training on inhaling hazards. Plaintiffs’ requests for respirators, dust masks and other protection were denied, and some workers who were prescribed protections were ordered not to wear them, the suit said.

Press reports said trial testimony showed Jacobs began to relax safety testing procedures and worker safety rules immediately. Testimony also showed that workers were misled about the dangers of coal-ash exposure, and even after workers became ill, Jacobs safety managers continued to insist that the exposure was not the cause. Safety managers destroyed dust masks and refused an EPA directive to provide workers with showers and changing rooms, according to testimony.

Jacobs was accused of manipulating exposure-level tests by altering monitors and test samples, trial testimony showed.

TVA’s inspector general said in 2010 that the power producer earned poor marks for coal-ash management practices, noting little recognition of potential hazard to the public and environment, but the IG would not confirm to local press if it had any further probes underway or planned.