TVA sued in worker electrocution death at Bull Run plant; report warned of safety concerns

By: - October 10, 2022 6:01 am
A hopper car on a train filled with coal to be delivered to a TVA coal-fired plant.(Photo: John Partipilo)

A hopper car on a train filled with coal to be delivered to a TVA coal-fired plant.(Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Valley Authority is being blamed in the electrocution death of a contract laborer at its Bull Run Fossil Plant in Anderson County.

A lawsuit on behalf of the estate of Seth Black, a 29-year-old Spring City, Tenn., man who died at the plant in September 2021, has been filed in U.S. District Court in Knoxville against TVA and its labor supplier, GUBMK Constructors.

Attorneys T. Scott Jones and Chris Beavers allege in the lawsuit Black was fatally electrocuted when the surface on which he stood gave way.

“Seth Black was working to place insulation on top of a precipitator insulator when he fell through the top surface and came into contact with an energized circuit, causing his electrocution and death,” the attorneys wrote.

Seth Black (Photo: Submitted)

“Prior to the accident at issue, (TVA) and GUBMK Constructors failed to determine if the walking surface on the precipitator insulator had the strength and structural integrity to support the weight of workers in general and Seth Black in particular,” the lawsuit continued.

The legal action comes as the TVA Office of the Inspector General confirms in a recent report dangerous and deteriorating conditions at the Bull Run coal-fired plant in the Claxton community of Anderson County.

TVA announced in 2019 it intended to shutter the Bull Run plant by December 2023. But workers interviewed by OIG investigators say they’re not sure the plant can last that long in its current condition.

“Multiple individuals expressed concerns with the deteriorated plant condition at (Bull Run) with several indicating safety concerns from the conditions,” the OIG report stated.

The OIG report stated that TVA has cut funding to the plant, canceling $100 million in previously-scheduled projects to improve and upgrade operations.

“For many years, the (Bull Run plant) has experienced significant cuts in funding of asset improvements,” the report stated. “Deteriorated conditions have negatively impacted (the Bull Run plant’s) ability to operate when needed … Running a plant with deteriorated assets more than planned has led to safety concerns.”

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks declined to comment on the Black lawsuit, saying the utility has not yet been served with formal notice of the litigation.

“Our thoughts and prayers remain with Mr. Black’s family and colleagues who were impacted by the tragic accident,” Brooks said in a statement.

Brooks said TVA agreed with the findings in the OIG report and plans to “address any areas for improvement.”

“Going forward, TVA’s focus remains on operating (the) Bull Run Fossil Plant safely and reliably until the plant is retired,” Brooks said.

OIG: Plant conditions unsafe for workers

Bull Run is one of the oldest in TVA’s fleet of coal-fired plants in Tennessee, operating since 1967. TVA still hasn’t said what it plans to do with the plant property, where millions of tons of toxic, radioactive coal ash waste is stored, when it shutters the facility.

The plant closure will leave dozens of TVA and contract laborers without jobs. The OIG report noted the Bull Run plant is already short staffed, so much so that the utility has agreed to put International Brotherhood of Electrical members to work as assistant unit operators without completing TVA’s required training.

The OIG report says current Bull Run workers are concerned and “frustrated” with safety and operational plant conditions that are exposing them to toxic by-products of burning coal to produce electricity.

Multiple employees indicated that physical safety is at risk and a recent safety event (Black’s electrocution) has increased these concerns. Multiple individuals expressed concern that (Bull Run) personnel are at increased risk of injury due to falling lagging at the plant.

– Report from the Tennessee Valley Authority Office of Inspector General

“Examples of these concerns included excessive coal dust and flue gas, rotting (coal) ash and economizer hoppers, falling lagging and insulation and rusted ammonia piping,” the report stated. “We confirmed with a (Bull Run) manager that certain areas of (the plant) are prone to excessive coal dust and flue gas when operating … We confirmed with management that when operating, the odor of ammonia is present in the area. Ammonia can be toxic and poses risks to humans through various types of exposure.”

OIG investigators said safety problems have been documented 89 times in less than two years, “with many documenting degraded equipment conditions and a couple documenting safety hazards related to damaged equipment and leaks.”

“Multiple employees indicated that physical safety is at risk and a recent safety event (Black’s electrocution) has increased these concerns,” the report stated. “Multiple individuals expressed concern that (Bull Run) personnel are at increased risk of injury due to falling lagging at the plant.”

Bull Run workers told OIG investigators they have been ordered to restart the plant’s electricity generator when it was not safe to do so.

“Multiple employees expressed frustration with being requested to start (the) unit when it was not ready to operate,” the report stated. “Some employees also described (the plant generator) as not being able to operate more than 72 hours before equipment conditions cause the unit to shut down or indicated the unit frequently trips.

“A few employees who transferred to (Bull Run) from other retired coal sites also indicated that asset condition at (Bull Run) was much worse than their previous site,” the report continued.

A separate OIG report criticized TVA for failing to properly train all its coal-fired plant workers on the use of respirators to protect their lungs from deadly contaminates, including radium in coal and coal ash dust.

A staff member from Civil and Environmental Consultants collecting a surface soil sample inside the playground, in the central area near the playground entrance where children would play or run to other playground equipment. TVA staff observe the sampling process. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Health)
A staff member from Civil and Environmental Consultants collecting a surface soil sample inside a playground. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Health)

According to that report, 51 of the 139 workers selective in a spot survey had not been trained on the proper use of the devices and had not been properly fitted for the lung-saving gear. Respirators at Bull Run “were not stored in bags or containers” as required to prevent wear and tear and contamination, the report noted, and workers were not being provided the respirators for which they had been fitted in many instances.

Workers told investigators TVA is also running short on coal at the plant at a time when the plant is being ordered to produce more electricity than originally planned under the utility’s closure plan. The report noted TVA has been forced to rely on the Bull Run plant to fill the electricity gap between demand — driven upward in recent years by rising summer temperatures — and the utility’s supply.

“If TVA continues to operate (Bull Run) until its approved retirement date of December 2023, operational and safety risks should be evaluated,” the report stated.

Residents demand information on contamination

Workers aren’t the only ones raising concerns about Bull Run in the run-up to the plant’s closure. Citizens who live near the plant are demanding an update from TVA and its state regulator, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, on what the utility intends to do about its leaky coal ash dumps.

In a letter sent to TDEC, Anderson County residents Sharon Todd, Robert and Nancy Hertwig, Stacy Jollay and Todd Waterman are urging the agency to hold a public hearing on issues related to TVA’s Bull Run coal ash storage and wastewater discharges into public drinking water sources.

Statewide Organization for Community Empowerment organizer Adam Hughes, members of the community group Bull Run Neighbors, the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Citizens Climate Lobby have signed onto the letter.

“Our groups have members who live nearby the Bull Run Fossil Plant and have deep personal interest and experience in maintaining good water quality in the vicinity,” the letter stated. “This community has demonstrated serious concern about coal ash contamination, and our local members know that many community members have questions about the future of coal ash storage beyond Bull Run’s retirement date.

A hopper car on a train filled with coal to be delivered to a TVA coal-fired plant.(Photo: John Partipilo)
A hopper car on a train filled with coal to be delivered to a TVA coal-fired plant.(Photo: John Partipilo)

“We know (from) prior TDEC presentations that groundwater contamination is occurring around the plant, and we want to know and give comment on any aspects of (TVA’s recently-requested) new permit (on coal ash wastewater discharges) that would exacerbate this problem,” the letter stated.

Unsafe levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium and molybdenum are being logged in groundwater monitoring wells at the Bull Run coal ash dumps. TVA has also reported “seepages” — industrial jargon for leaks in coal ash dumps that led to the Kingston disaster — at Bull Run in recent years, TDEC records show. At least one of TVA’s Bull Run coal ash dumps is already submerged in groundwater.

A study published last year by Duke University found evidence that homes, yards and a children’s playground downwind from Bull Run are being contaminated with coal ash. A joint TDEC-TVA sampling study made public earlier this year confirmed the presence of coal ash on the playground at the Claxton Community Park. The park is located less than 100 yards from a pile of coal ash stored outside the plant.

TVA has said it plans to leave all its coal ash dumps behind when it shutters Bull Run and has repeatedly insisted there is no proof — yet — the toxic dumps are contaminating the water, land and air in Anderson County.

TDEC is allowing TVA to investigate itself and issue a report on the level of contamination the utility finds. It’s been seven years since TDEC ordered TVA to launch an investigation of its coal ash waste, and the utility still hasn’t released any findings.

“Why have there been repeated delays on submitting (TVA’s report) for the coal ash?” the citizens’ letter asked. “What have local water tests results been? Are there updates on the heavy metal exceedances that TDEC has previously reported (in Bull Run monitoring wells)?”

Brooks did not provide answers to questions about TVA’s anticipated environmental assessment report and the continued submersion of coal ash in groundwater at Bull Run.

Todd, Waterman and SOCM are also named as plaintiffs on behalf of the Claxton community in a lawsuit filed recently by environmental groups against the EPA. The lawsuit accuses the EPA of being too soft on coal ash dump operators like TVA and urges the agency to impose stricter regulations on how the toxic substance is stored.

Aerial of the TVA plant in Kingsport Tennessee, Kingsport. on the Clinch River. An ash dam spill on December 22 2008 resulted in a major environmental issue for the area. (Photo: Karen Kasmauski for Getty Images)
Aerial of the TVA plant in Kingston Tennessee, on the Clinch River. An ash dam spill on December 22 2008 resulted in a major environmental issue for the area. (Photo: Karen Kasmauski for Getty Images)

Coal ash, the material left over when coal is burned to produce electricity, is a stew of 26 dangerous carcinogens, including arsenic, cobalt, lithium, radium, selenium and molybdenum.

For decades, TVA and its fellow coal-fired plant operators insisted coal ash was no more dangerous than dirt and no more radioactive than low-sodium table salt, and the EPA declined to regulate it. That changed when waste dumps at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., collapsed in December 2008, spilling millions of gallons of wet coal ash into the Clinch and Emory Rivers and contaminating more than 300 acres of land.

Internal records obtained as a part of an investigation into that spill and TVA’s treatment of workers employed to clean up the Kingston disaster site would later show TVA had known since at least 1981 that its coal ash contained radium, which is dangerous to breathe or ingest, at levels considered unsafe under public drinking water standards and potentially dangerous levels of a host of other contaminants, including arsenic.

As a result of the spill, the EPA issued its first-ever regulatory guidelines for coal ash storage but declined to classify the substance itself as a hazardous waste, which would have triggered greater protections for the workforce and the public.

Since the spill, more than 50 Kingston disaster workers have died and at least 200 more are sick. They blame coal ash exposure for the deaths and illnesses. Federal court testimony, depositions and records have shown TVA and its clean-up contractor, Jacobs Engineering, misled the workers about the dangers of coal ash exposure, refused to provide respiratory protection for them and threatened to fire workers who insisted on respirators or masks.

Affected workers are suing Jacobs in U.S. District Court. Although the workers won the first round in the toxic tort battle in November 2018, the case is on hold pending a decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a related legal issue. The suing workers have twice rejected settlement offers by the global contractor.

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.