In a settlement announced on August 1, 2014, TVA, the nation’s largest utility, has agreed to pay $27.8 million to settle claims from over 800 Tennessee property owners who suffered damages from a huge, 2008 spill of toxin-laden coal ash sludge that drew national attention to the proper storage and disposal of toxic coal ash at coal-fired power plants. This landmark settlement brings resolution to over five years of intesive litigation by Davis & Whitlock and other firms on behalf of affected Tennessee property owners against TVA.
On December 22, 2008, TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant suddenly released over 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge from a failed coal ash impoundment into the Emory River creating a sludge tsunami that destroyed waterfront homes and affected properties miles away. Over five years later, despite a massive cleanup effort, coal ash still remains in parts of the Emory River, Clinch River, and Watts Bar Lake.
Davis & Whitlock filed suit on behalf of property owners and others impacted by the TVA Coal Ash Disaster on January 9, 2009, together with the Beasley Allen firm from Montgomery, Alabama. After two years of TVA motions attempting to avoid liability, Davis & Whitlock and five other firms (Friedman Dazzio, Beasley Allen, Villari Brandes, Lieff Cabraser, and Weitz & Luxenberg) tried the issue of TVA’s negligence for nearly a month before Judge Thomas Varlan in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville. Jeff Friedman and Gary Davis were the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys in the trial. On August 23, 2012, Judge Varlan issued a 130-page opinion finding TVA negligent in its handling of coal ash at the Kingston Fossil Plant going all the way back to its construction of the original coal ash dike in the 1950’s. To attempt to avoid the necessity of over 800 damages trials, the Judge granted plaintiffs’ motion to order mediation.
Mediation of the complex, multiparty case, with plaintiffs’ impacted properties ranging from ground zero to several miles downstream, took nearly one and a half years. Although insisting before mediation that plaintiffs were not entitled to any damages, TVA finally agreed to an aggregate settlement of $27.8 million, in which almost 100% of the plaintiffs participated. Although it took a long time, the Settlement will avoid even lengthier and expensive trials and inevitable appeals by TVA. The precedent setting negligence judgment and $27.8 million Settlement will serve as a permanent reminder that coal ash must be disposed of with much greater care than utilities have exercised in the past.