TVA coal ash spill has hundreds suing for damages

Published 11:42 pm Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hundreds of people sued the Tennessee Valley Authority for damages before a one-year deadline to file personal injury claims related to the utility’s huge coal ash spill at Kingston.

Court clerks said 20 more federal lawsuits were filed in Knoxville on the final day before the Monday deadline, most of them seeking damages for multiple plaintiffs.

TVA has filed motions that contend the nation’s largest public utility was providing a government service and is immune from such damage claims.

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In Nashville, Tennessee health officials released a draft report Tuesday that said TVA’s Dec. 22, 2008 coal ash spill poses little potential for harm to public health outside the contained spill area on the Emory River.

An attorney with clients seeking damages in 28 lawsuits, John Agee of Clinton, said Tuesday that instead of a court fight, some sort of administrative agency should be set up to deal with the claims that stem from the spill and TVA’s continuing cleanup at the coal-fired plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville.

He said such a “non-adversarial” process has been used in other disputes involving government entities and workplace sicknesses.

Agee said there are a total of “at least 200 and possibly 350” plaintiffs seeking damages in the lawsuits. The suits seeking jury trials and TVA’s motions asking that they be thrown out are pending before U.S. District Court Judge Tom Varlan.

TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci referred questions Tuesday about the lawsuits to the utility’s court filings.

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore has said the utility will go to court “looking to defend ourselves as anybody would.”

The suits seek damages caused by 5.4 million cubic yards of toxin-laden muck breaching a holding pond at the coal-fired plant and TVA’s cleanup that is expected to continue until 2013. TVA is giving Kingston and other neighboring communities a total of $43 million and agreed to pay settlements to owners of 150 pieces of property. About 33 settlement offers were not accepted.

With the court battles pending, the Environmental Protection Agency has said it is trying to reach a decision on regulating coal ash waste from power plants. While the spill contains arsenic and potentially carcinogenic heavy metals and EPA has said it is “regarded as one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind in history,” the ash is not regulated as hazardous waste. Some environmental groups want EPA to change that.

Agee said designating the ash as hazardous waste “would help to prevent TVA from saying it is not harmful.”

One of the lawsuits that Agee filed Monday seeks damages for Bruce Duncan, his wife, their disabled adult son and an 8-year-old son.

That suit contends they have suffered illnesses since the spill that include frequent nosebleeds, frontal headaches, increased shortness of breath, wheezing, asthma exacerbation and increased chest pain. The suit accuses TVA of gross negligence and seeks at least $1 million in compensatory damages for personal injuries and losses, in addition to unspecified punitive damages to punish TVA and as a deterrent.

Agee said TVA has not offered the Duncans anything. He said they live two or three miles from the spill but trucks loaded with ash pass by their house daily.

“The situation that these people are in, they are not able to leave because they can’t afford to buy some other place,” Agee said. “The doctor has indicated she doesn’t need to be there and has told them not to drink the water.”