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10 years after coal ash spill, cleanup workers are sick and dying

Just before Christmas in 2008, over 1.5 million tons of coal ash escaped from an unlined containment pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal-fired power plant. It poured into the Clinch and Emory rivers and flooded 300 acres of land. The ash came in the form of a thick sludge that contained toxic substances including lead, mercury, arsenic and radium. The cleanup took years. Now many of the cleanup workers -- and their family members -- are suffering serious and fatal illnesses caused by exposure to the sludge.

According to a recent report by the National Resources Defense Council, the 900 cleanup workers who handled what was the nation's largest coal ash spill wore ordinary gear, not containment equipment, as they struggled with the ash and sludge. By the end of the day, they tended to be covered in ash from head to toe.

Over 30 of those 900 workers have died. Another 200 are seriously or terminally ill. Many of the sick workers have sued the company they worked for, Jacobs Engineering, for failing to protect them by providing appropriate protective gear. They also claim that Jacobs misrepresented the dangers, even telling the workers that eating or drinking the ash could not hurt them. In fact, the toxins in coal ash can injure all major organ systems.

Jacobs had originally provided dust masks at the cleanup site, but its safety manager ordered their removal. He also put an end to daily chemical exposure tests and drew back weekly tests so they only tested for silica. He allegedly tampered with the test results.

In November, a Knoxville jury found that Jacobs Engineering endangered its cleanup workers' health. The next phase of the trial will determine how much compensation the sick workers and their survivors should receive.

Last year, a study found that pregnant women and children are more vulnerable to coal ash than others. They can suffer birth defects, developmental delays, various cancers and injuries to the heart, lungs and nervous system. Many, if not all of the workers' families were exposed second-hand to coal ash and sludge that was carried home on the workers' clothing. According to the NRDC, several family members are also showing signs of coal ash-related illnesses.

Some expect more workers, their family members, and residents of the spill zone have been exposed to coal ash toxins and may be suffering similar illnesses.

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