|August 28, 2012|
Previously published on August 23, 2012
On December 22, 2008, more than a billion gallons of coal fly ash spilled when a dike burst on a retention pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Roane County. The catastrophic failure is the largest environmental disaster involving a spill of coal ash in United States history.
In the Fall of 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee in Knoxville oversaw a three week trial without a jury, called a bench trial, in a lawsuit filed by property owners whose properties were negatively impacted by the spilled coal ash. The trial was limited to the question of whether TVA was liable for releasing the coal ash into the river system. The issues of individual causation and damages were reserved for later proceedings.
Today, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan found in favor of plaintiffs on their claims of negligence, trespass, and private nuisance. TVA maintained that its conduct was discretionary conduct and that as the government, it could not be held accountable for its actions.
The Court ruled that the plaintiffs established at trial that “TVA’s conduct in regard to its mandatory policies, procedures, and practices for coal ash management compounded the location, design, and operation causes [for the dike failure] and had TVA followed its own mandatory policies, procedures and practices, the subsurface issues underlying the failure of the North Dike would have been investigated, addressed, and potentially remedied before the catastrophic failure of December 22, 2008.”
The Court also concluded that “TVA’s failure to inform TVA personnel- its own inspectors and coal ash managers- of the substance of these policies, procedures, and practices, and their negligent performance of the same, is nondiscretionary conduct for which TVA is liable.”
Lieff Cabraser attorney Elizabeth Alexander served as one of the trial counsel for the plaintiff property owners. She stated, "People have been harmed through the actions of TVA, in some cases irreparably. TVA did its best to avoid financial responsibility for the harm it has done, but there was no merit or justification for it to be given such extraordinary protection. TVA spent millions of dollars in legal fees fighting to be cleared of responsibility for what they did wrong instead of compensating the people whose property was damaged."