Environmental Litigation

TVA Coal Ash Spill

Result: $27.8 million settlement
Year: 2014

Widespread Destruction From Nation’s Largest Coal Ash Slurry Spill

Lieff Cabraser represented hundreds of property owners and businesses harmed by the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. The case is now in mediation proceedings.

On December 22, 2008, more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled when a dike burst on a retention pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Roane County, Tennessee. A wall of coal ash slurry traveled across the Emory River, polluting the river and nearby waterways and covering nearly 300 acres with toxic sludge, including 12 homes and damaging hundreds of properties.

Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal and is considered toxic. The ash ponds at the Kingston coal plant were separated from a nearby river only by earthen dikes, and not stored in lined landfills.

In August 2014, the case came to a conclusion with TVA’s payment of $27.8 million to settle the litigation.

Video footage of the coal ash disaster from the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Testing of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, as well as high levels of arsenic.

Kingston Coal Spill Case History

Leaks and seepage plagued the retention pond at the TVA coal plant for years. According to a February 2008 inspection report, the TVA reportedly knew about leaks at the Kingston facility for more than two decades and opted not to pay for long-term solutions to the problem.

In March 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Varlan denied in major part TVA’s motion to dismiss lawsuits arising out of the Kingston coal ash disaster in December 2008. TVA argued that it can not be held liable for the disaster because it is an arm of the federal government and immune from lawsuits. In denying TVA’s motions, the Court explained that "once a relevant policy decision has been made, the government is accountable for its negligence in the implementation of that decision."

In March 2011, the Court granted in part and denied in part TVA’s second motion for summary judgment and delineated the claims plaintiffs could proceed to trial on. Importantly, the Court denied TVA’s motion for summary judgment as it related to TVA’s liability for its failure to properly train its personnel; its negligence in implementing and enforcing its policies; its negligence in overseeing the construction of and maintaining the coal ash impoundment.

The trial of the case concluded in October 2011. In August 2012, Judge 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."