he New York attorney who helped win money for first responders who were exposed to toxic dust from the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center is now targeting the Tennessee Valley Authority and one of its contractors over coal ash exposure.
Marc Bern, a kingpin among lawyers specializing in mass injury litigation, has signed onto a lawsuit filed against TVA and contractor Jacobs Engineering Inc. earlier this year. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of leaders in Roane County and two cities within its borders, Kingston and Harriman.
The lawsuit, initially filed by Knoxville attorneys Jim Scott, Keith Stewart and J. Tyler Roper, accuses TVA and Jacobs of misleading government leaders and Roane County residents about the toxicity of the 7.3 million tons of coal ash that spilled from a busted dike at TVA’s Kingston coal-fired power plant in 2008.
TVA and Jacobs insisted in repeated public statements after the spill — the nation’s largest human-created environmental disaster ever — that coal ash was no more dangerous than dirt.
“Unfortunately, because the defendants, TVA and Jacobs, have not stepped up to do the right thing, the cases could go on for years,” Bern said. “You’re going to have more people die or get debilitating illnesses.”
Workers say coal ash made them sick
Roane County leaders already had taken a financial handout from TVA, to the tune of $43 million, for “economic development” in the wake of the spill. And TVA shelled out $27.8 million to settle spill-related property damage claims by residents living near the spill site.
But with the ink still wet on TVA’s checks and its cleanup operation, headed by Jacobs, still underway, workers at the Kingston disaster site began complaining of sicknesses and asking questions about the coal ash they were being exposed to without respiratory protection for their lungs and coveralls for their bodies.
A handful of those workers filed suit in U.S. District Court in 2013 against Jacobs, alleging the firm’s safety managers falsely told them coal ash was safe enough to eat, denied them adequate protective gear, threatened to fire them if they insisted on respiratory masks, destroyed dust masks to keep workers from wearing them and tampered with threat level testing.
The Knoxville News Sentinel in 2017 launched its own investigation of coal ash — what TVA and Jacobs knew about it and when — and the treatment of the workers.
The News Sentinel’s probe revealed TVA has known its coal ash was a stew of dangerous toxins, heavy metals and radioactive materials. But, the investigation revealed, that information was never included in any safety worker training materials provided to the Kingston workers.
Since the spill, 41 Kingston disaster workers are now dead from diseases linked to the toxic ingredients in coal ash and an additional 400 are sick, according to a News Sentinel tally from court records.
In November, a federal jury ruled Jacobs breached its contract with TVA and its duty to protect the workers. And, the jury concluded coal ash exposure could have caused the sicknesses and diseases from which the workers now suffer.
The verdict didn’t bring the workers any money for testing and treatment but instead clears the way for more trials to establish a direct link between the exposure and the sicknesses. That process could take years. Many of the sickened workers do not have health insurance.
Kingston workers still seek help
The Kingston disaster relief workers earlier this month asked TVA’s board of directors for help to establish a special health insurance program for them, similar to the 9/11 compensation fund Bern’s law firm helped secure for those first responders. The board rejected it, though members offered the ailing workers their sympathy.
Bern will not be involved in the ongoing litigation involving the Kingston disaster workers or helping those workers secure money for medical testing and treatment.
But it was because of them, he said, that he is now lending his name — and his firm’s massive legal budget — to try to help Roane County residents who also may have been poisoned by long-term exposure to coal ash.
“I actually had seen reports of the coal ash spill,” Bern told the News Sentinel in an exclusive interview. “This coal ash spill is unprecedented in this country in scale … but virtually no one outside the area of Knoxville is really aware of these horrible exposures these (workers) have had to suffer because even to this day TVA and Jacobs deny how bad coal ash is.
“I said this is something my firm needs to get involved with,” he continued. “I felt it was important to try to bring a light to what’s going on and hopefully prevent other tragedies of this nature.”
TVA, Jacobs: Roane leaders want cash
TVA and Jacobs say the lawsuit by Roane County leaders on behalf of their residents is nothing more than a money grab. They say in court filings Roane County leaders have known for years now that workers alleged coal ash was dangerous but did nothing until those workers won a favorable verdict.
“The spill and cleanup have been front-page news in Plaintiffs’ communities for over a decade,” attorney Dwight Tarwater wrote in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed on behalf of Jacobs. “The Knoxville News Sentinel, for instance, has published a steady stream of over 500 stories about the spill and its aftermath since December 2008.
“All of Jacobs’ alleged misconduct stems from its assistance with TVA’s cleanup of the spill site, which was completed in April 2015,” he wrote. “That was more than four years ago, and it was widely publicized at the time.”
Like Bern, Tarwater is a recent addition to the legal team already involved in the case. Tarwater had been serving as general counsel for former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam but returned to Knoxville in April and is now heading up Jacobs’ defense in the Roane County leaders’ lawsuit.
Original appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel. Click here for original article.