What happens when the fallout from the nation’s largest industrial disaster goes nuclear?
In 2009, App Thacker was hired to run a dredge along the Emory River in eastern Tennessee. Picture an industrialized fleet modeled after Huck Finn’s raft: Nicknamed Adelyn, Kylee, and Shirley, the blue, flat-bottomed boats used mechanical arms called cutterheads to dig up riverbeds and siphon the excavated sediment into shoreline canals. The largest dredge, a two-story behemoth called the Sandpiper, had pipes wide enough to swallow a push lawnmower. Smaller dredges like Thacker’s scuttled behind it, scooping up excess muck like fish skimming a whale’s corpse. They all had the same directive: Remove the thick grey sludge that clogged the Emory.
Then there was the nuclear waste. According to a 2011 TVA report, the river-bound coal ash and sediments contained higher radiation levels than the holding pond. Half of the river sediment samples taken contained cesium-137, a highly soluble compound with a 30-year half-life that can contaminate large bodies of water for well over a generation. It’s best known as the predominant source of radiation in the fallout of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It can cause burns, acute radiation sickness, and death. Exposure also increases the risk for cancer.
Cesium-137 also happens to be a byproduct of the nuclear reactions and weapons testing that began in the 1940s at the 35,000-acre Oak Ridge Reservation, which is roughly 30 miles upstream from Kingston. The federal facility is infamous for its role in the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the U.S. dropping twin atom bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, demonstrating the horrific effects of radiation exposure to the world.
The Kingston coal ash spill was the nation’s largest industrial disaster to date, releasing five times as much toxic material as the 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Workers like Thacker now wonder what they were really exposed to during the cleanup. Coal ash is toxic in its own right, but additional radioactivity may have made the dredged material more dangerous than the ash alone.
While no one was killed by the 2008 coal ash spill itself, dozens of workers have died from illnesses that emerged during or after the cleanup. Hundreds of other workers are sick from respiratory, cardiac, neurological, and blood disorders, as well as cancers; the jury in a 2018 court case determined that many of these ailments could have been caused by long-term coal ash exposure. Whether or not the coal ash alone was responsible for the deluge of illnesses — and whether or not TVA was aware of exposure to additional hazards that it did not disclose to workers — remains an open question.
Interviews with those involved in the cleanup and sworn declarations in court indicate that workers were in contact with unambiguously hazardous material, including discarded barrels with nuclear hazard symbols. A documented spike in radiation readings at the site, which state regulators deleted without explanation from public reports in 2009, has raised further questions about the extent of worker exposure.
TVA did not acknowledge these dangerous risk factors publicly. Doing so could have triggered a far more expensive and more stringently regulated cleanup, as well as a stain on the utility’s upstanding reputation. Instead, TVA and its contractors failed to inform workers about the known possibility that unusually high levels of radioactive contamination could put their lives in danger. Whether this potential coverup caused or exacerbated any of the cluster of illnesses that has killed at least 51 former workers since the spill — and wreaked havoc on the lives of hundreds more — may never be known.
Read more at A Legacy of Contamination