Longtime reporter Jamie Satterfield and Knoxville News Sentinel part ways

Satterfield relentlessly covered 2008 TVA coal ash spill

By: - August 29, 2021 6:53 pm
TVA Norris Dam in Anderson County (Photo: TVA website)

TVA Norris Dam in Anderson County (Photo: TVA website)

On the same day Knoxville News Sentinel news reporter Jamie Satterfield picked up yet another first-place journalism award for her relentless, ongoing coverage of the devastating fallout of a coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant more than a decade ago, the veteran reporter announced on Twitter that she had parted ways with her employer of 27 years.

Satterfield has not publicly spoken about the reason behind her break with the Knoxville News Sentinel — owned by Gannett Co, the nation’s largest newspaper chain.

“I love every person who ever allowed me the privilege of finding the truth of their circumstances and every reader who supported me,” she said Sunday in a messaged response to questions about her departure.

Joel Christopher, the newspaper’s executive editor, said in an email Sunday he was restricted from comment about personnel matters, adding:

“Jamie has been a valuable member of our staff, and her work speaks for itself. We appreciate her collegiality and myriad contributions, and wish her nothing but the best in the future

Satterfield’s announcement came as a surprise to readers, her sources and fellow journalists.

Satterfield worked as the News Sentinel’s legal affairs reporter. She built a reputation as a prolific and hard-nosed crime and courts reporter, but in recent years added environmental reporting to her beat following the 2008 disaster at the Kingston coal-fired power plant. More than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilled onto nearby homes and into creeks and streams in the town west of Knoxville.

Satterfield then chronicled illness and deaths among the workers hired for the clean-up. She also mined internal documents, lawsuits and reports that showed how toxic coal ash is. Thus far, at least 50 workers have died and hundreds more have fallen sick, according to Satterfield’s reporting.

Satterfield on Friday posted a cryptic message on Twitter aimed at the Tennessee Valley Authority: “Don’t worry, @TVAnews. I know what you did and soon the world will know”

She also reposted a seven-and-one-half-minute video of herself speaking at an August 9 public meeting in Anderson County, in which she warned local officials about the health hazards at a local playground. Satterfield reported the Tennessee Valley Authority used coal ash waste as infill in its construction of a ball field adjacent to the playground.

“My fear, what keeps me up at night – and I’m probably going to get fired, but I’m just going with it — what happened at Kingston is workers were exposed 8, 10, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, many of them for years and some for months and they were exposed to coal ash stuff every day. Their bodies are proof of what it does,” she said.

She grew tearful as she ticked off the names of workers who suffered brain cancer, skin ailments and other rare conditions that, in some cases, led to death.

“I can’t sleep at night knowing,” she told city officials. “Can you believe they built a ball field out of radioactive material? If I was the manager of McDonalds and I threw hot oil over the fry cooks, I am guessing I’m going to be arrested. But TVA can build a ball field out of radioactive material and tell no one….you all can protect children, starting today. And you can hold TVA accountable. I may need a donation or two because I may get fired for this, but I had to. God required it.”

News organizations’ codes of conduct typically bar journalists from acting as a participant or advocate in public meetings. It is not publicly known if Satterfield’s testimony led to her leaving the paper.

Satterfield’s departure came as a blow to some of the families of coal ash workers whose illnesses and deaths Satterfield chronicled.

“She cared, she investigated and she didn’t leave a stone unturned,” said Julie Bledsoe, the wife of former Kingston coal ash worker Ron Bledsoe, who has since fallen ill. Bledsoe said she was “shocked and heartbroken this paper has let her go.”

“She’s from this area,” said Bledsoe.  Her husband’s deep, hacking coughs were audible as she spoke by phone from her car.

“With her experience as a seasoned, investigative reporter, this woman has worked on some horrible crimes and terrible things and I trusted her reporting and still do,” she said. “She is from here. She was the only one who could do this story, and I don’t think anyone could have done it better. She’s not one to be pushed around, to put her pen back in her pocket and walk off.”

Note to readers: This story has been updated to reflect the number of years Satterfield worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

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