KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – An environmentalist claims Tennessee Valley Authority police arrested him twice for reporting on the enormous 2008 Kingston coal ash spill.
Matthew Landon Jones calls it “part of a long term tactic of deliberate false arrests and imprisonments … to disrupt dissent against environmentally disastrous policies … by the TVA and the mountain-top removal coal mining companies it works to support.”
Jones sued the Tennessee Valley Authority, its CEO Tom Kilgore, and several TVA police and security officers in Federal Court.
A wall of an 84-acre retention pond collapsed at TVA’s Kingston plant in Harriman, Tenn., on Dec. 22, 2008, releasing more than 1 billion gallons of fly ash slurry that flooded homes, spilled into the tributaries of the Tennessee River and contaminated eight river systems.
“Much of this coal ash comes from the burning of coal supplied by massive Mountain Top Removal (MTR) mines throughout Appalachia,” according to the complaint. “MTR is an enormously environmentally destructive and controversial recent form of coal mining that has sparked protest throughout the region and outrage throughout the world.
“Experts including James Hansen, NASA’s leading climatologist, have concluded that the mining, processing and burning of coal is the largest single cause of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and of global climate change.
“The coal ash released by the wholly foreseeable breaking of the earthen dam includes large concentrations of silica and such lethal carcinogenic heavy metals as arsenic and cadmium, which turned up in high concentrations in air and water tests conducted by plaintiff Matthew Landon Jones, United Mountain Defense, and others.”
Jones, a volunteer with the Knoxville-based environmental group United Mountain Defense (UMD) and Knoxville Independent Media, says he tried to inform affected residents and to document the extent of the disaster.
Jones says he and other volunteers tested water, distributed information about the chemicals in the fly ash, advised people not to boil water, as the TVA suggested, but to use bottled water instead, and took other actions to protect residents from contamination.
“UMD rapidly responded to the TVA coal waste disaster by shifting their field operations to the site,” the complaint states. “UMD has been working on the ground in Harriman, Tenn. since Monday Dec. 22. Residents living near the TVA Kingston steam plant were flooded with approximately 1.6 billion gallons of coal waste. It covered over 300 acres of land and flooded into tributaries of the Tennessee River which is the water supply for Chattanooga, Tenn. and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.”
Jones says he spoke out against the TVA and “as a volunteer for UMD, made his first public statement, dressing up as Santa Claus and giving a speech on site through a bullhorn attacking the TVA for the disaster.”
He says the TVA denied him access to the disaster site and TVA police detained and questioned him and other volunteers.
Jones says he was “threatened by TVA employees and TVA police for pulling off the side of the road and taking pictures of the coal fly ash.”
He calls this “part of a long-term tactic of deliberate false arrests and imprisonments, excessive force, malicious prosecution, and other forms of brutality and humiliation to disrupt dissent against environmentally disastrous policies and activities by the TVA and the mountain top removal coal mining companies it works to support.”
Jones adds: “The TVA, by information and belief, has a history of closing off disaster sites of their making not for safety reasons, but to prevent discovery and documentation of the extent of the disaster and the harm caused by it, and to prevent organizing around the disaster.”
Jones claims the TVA retaliated when he continued to organize residents, to protest at TVA public events, and to conduct air and water testing and escort the media to the disaster site.
“On March 3, 2009, UMD volunteers Matt Landon Jones (plaintiff) and Tom Swinford set up a ‘Mini Vol’ air monitor on private property of a resident of the affected area, with permission of that resident, and within minutes were detained and questioned by Roane County police officers and TVA police officers[.] Plaintiff was videotaping the event and had his camera confiscated by the police, after being detained for nearly 2 hours plaintiff and Tom Swinford were ordered to remove the air monitor and were allowed to leave custody.”
Jones says two TVA police officers interrogated and arrested him after a public meeting during which he presented video evidence tracking coal fly ash on public roads.
He says: “As plaintiff was escorted to the Roane County jail for processing he was informed by the TVA officer transporting him that he was ‘protecting the residents’ of the Swan Pond community from ‘people like me.’ When plaintiff questioned him further about this he stated that he meant onlookers and sightseers and people taking videos while disrupting vehicle traffic and impeding the cleanup of the disaster site.”
The complaint adds: “Plaintiff then spent 36 hours in two overcrowded county jails (Roane and Bradley Counties) before being released on bail. He was forced to sleep on the floor in both jails and only received 2 meals.
“Plaintiff had never been to jail before and the arrest and imprisonment were deeply traumatic for him.
“His release conditions were 1) that he was not allowed on TVA property at the Kingston steam plant, and 2) that he will not interfere with the construction or recovery effort concerning the ash spill at the TVA steam plant. Plaintiff had never done either of those things and continued not to do them.” (Parentheses in complaint.)
Jones says the charges against him were dropped after he met “a rigid set of conditions for six months.”
He says TVA officers continued to harass him and arrested him again in January 2010, for riding in a car with two journalists who were reporting on the cleanup of the disaster.
Jones says he was charged with criminal trespass, though he had not been driving and never got out of the car, and was held for 6 hours on $2,000 bond.
Jones says: “Both arrests, detentions and prosecutions were extremely traumatic and disruptive to plaintiff and to his life and thoroughly chilled his First Amendment expression, work as a journalist, and association as they were calculated to do.”
He seeks compensatory and punitive damages for constitutional violations, and an injunction “to bar defendants and all similarly situated state and federal actors from ever carrying such a campaign of illegal conduct again.”
He is represented by Ian McCabe.