By James B. Kelleher

Aug 23 (Reuters) - The Tennessee Valley Authority is legally responsible for a 2008 accident that sent 5 million cubic yards of toxic coal sludge oozing into a small community in eastern Tennessee, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan said the levee that was supposed to keep the wet coal ash confined failed because of conduct on the part of the authority.

As a result, he said, the federally owned utility will have to pay unspecified damages to more than 800 plaintiffs who sued after the spill. Hundreds of acres of land in Roane County were covered and hundreds of residents were forced from their homes.

"Had TVA followed its own mandatory policies, procedures, and practices, the subsurface issues underlying the failure of North Dike would have been investigated, addressed, and potentially remedied before the catastrophic failure," Varlan wrote.

Coal ash, a by-product of coal power plants, contains heavy metals that can cause cancer and damage the nervous system, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The TVA said in a statement that it had already purchased nearly 180 properties affected by the spill, settled more than 200 other claims submitted by residents and paid $43 million to the Roane County Economic Development Foundation for use by communities in the affected area.

"Since the spill in December 2008, TVA's commitment has not wavered - to clean up the spill, protect the public health and safety, restore the area, and, where justified, fairly compensate people who were directly impacted," the utility said.

While it was a victory for the plaintiffs, Thursday's ruling signals the beginning of a new phase in their litigation against the TVA. The plaintiffs will now have to go back to court and prove that they were each directly impacted by the spill. (Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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  • Upper Big Branch

    Twenty-nine <a href="http://www.facesofthemine.com/faces-of-the-mine-upper-big-branch-memorial-page/" target="_hplink">miners</a> died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine on April 5, 2010. The mine, located in Montcoal, W.Va., was owned and operated by the Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy.<br><br>The Mine Safety and Health Administration <a href="http://wvgazette.com/News/montcoal/201009170861" target="_hplink">has said</a> that sparks from a worn-out piece of machinery combined with a buildup of coal dust caused the accident. Massey Energy has <a href="http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2011/01/28/massey-continues-to-dispute-msha-on-ubb-cause/" target="_hplink">continued to say</a> that a buildup of methane gas caused the explosion.<br><br>At a public meeting detailing the federal investigation, Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for mine safety and health at MSHA, said that there were two sets of books on mine conditions kept by Massey workers -- an accurate log that included safety problems, and a separate, watered-down version for federal and state inspectors to see.<br><br>The Upper Big Branch explosion was the <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304450604576415683464733192.html?KEYWORDS=upper+big+branch" target="_hplink">worst</a> U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.

  • Crandall Canyon Mine

    On Aug. 6, 2007, six miners were trapped in the Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, Utah, after roof-supporting pillars <a href="http://www.msha.gov/genwal/ccSummary.asp" target="_hplink">failed</a> and ejected coal over a half-mile area. Ten days later, three more people were killed by a subsequent collapse during the rescue effort.<br><br>According to the <a href="http://www.msha.gov/genwal/ccSummary.asp" target="_hplink">official</a> accident investigation summary released by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the catastrophe was the result of "an inadequate mine design." Unsafe pillar dimensions and an poor engineering management review contributed to the collapse.<br><br>In the above photo, family and friends carry the the body of Dale Black -- one of the rescue team members -- to his burial site at Huntington City Cemetery.

  • Darby Mine No. 1

    On May 20, 2006, five miners were killed in an explosion at Darby Mine No. 1 in Holmes Mill, Kentucky. According to information <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/darby.htm" target="_hplink">released</a> by the United States Mine Rescue Association, the explosion was the result of methane gas that was ignited by the cutting of a metal roof strap.<br><br>The miner who was working on the roof strap with a cutting torch had a functional methane detector tucked away in his pocket, a sign that it was not being used to check continuously for the potentially lethal gas. The USMRA also says a cutting torch should not have been used at the time.

  • Sago

    On Jan. 2, 2006, an <a href="http://www.msha.gov/sagomine/sagomine.asp" target="_hplink">explosion</a> at a mine in Sago, W.Va., killed 12 workers and severely injured one. The 13 miners were <a href="http://www.msha.gov/Fatals/2006/Sago/ftl06C1-12.pdf" target="_hplink">forced</a> to barricade themselves within the mine after the explosion -- caused by elevated levels of carbon monoxide and methane -- destroyed 10 seals used to separate a closed area of the mine.<br><br>Ben Hatfield, CEO of the International Coal Group, which owned the Wolf Run Mining Company that ran the Sago Mine, received criticism when the families of the fallen miners were falsely informed that the 12 men had lived. In an interview with NPR, workers and family members who were present when Hatfield broke news of the deaths <a href="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5134307" target="_hplink">described</a> the scene as "chaos."

  • Scotia

    In March 1976, a succession of explosions at the Scotia Mine in Oven Fork, Ky., claimed a total of 26 lives.<br><br>The first blast happened on March 9, killing 15 men. During rescue efforts on March 11, a second explosion killed 11 more.<br><br>Investigators <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/scotia.htm" target="_hplink">concluded</a> that both explosions were caused by the ignition of a methane-air mixture inside the mine.

  • Consol No. 9

    An explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, W.Va, killed 78 people on Nov. 20, 1968. The explosion was followed by raging <a href="http://www.wvculture.org/history/disasters/farmington02.html" target="_hplink">fires</a> that brought rescue operations to a halt.<br><br>A <a href="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97115205" target="_hplink">memo</a> from a federal investigator that surfaced in 2008 revealed that a safety alarm on a ventilation fan had been deliberately disabled before the explosion. The alarm, which hadn't been working for as long as 90 minutes before the blast, could have saved the lives of the 78 miners.<br><br>The tragedy at Farmington led to the <a href="http://www.msha.gov/mshainfo/mshainf2.htm" target="_hplink">passage</a> of the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969. That act paved the way for the <a href="http://www.msha.gov/REGS/ACT/ACTTC.HTM" target="_hplink">Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977</a>, the legislation that currently governs the Mine Safety and Health Administration's activities.

  • Cherry Mine

    On Nov. 13, 1909, a fire killed hundreds of workers in a coal mine in Cherry Hill, Illinois.<br><br>According to <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/cherry.htm" target="_hplink">reports</a> from the United States Mine Rescue Association, kerosene torches were used that day after the mine's electrical system broke down. Hay brought into the mine to feed mules that worked underground caught fire after being parked under one of the torches.<br><br>The fire quickly spread, causing the deaths of 259 men and boys who worked in the mine.

  • Monongah Nos. 6 And 8

    On Dec. 6, 1907, explosions occurred at a pair of nearby mines in <a href="http://www.msha.gov/disaster/monongah/monon1.asp" target="_hplink">Monongah</a>, West Virginia, killing 362 men and boys. The blast could be felt as far as eight miles away.<br><br>It wrecked the mine's ventilation system, allowing toxic gas to fill the area and hinder rescue efforts. Though investigators aren't certain of the <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/monongah.htm" target="_hplink">cause</a> of the explosion, it was probably started by the ignition of firedamp -- combustible gas made up mostly of methane -- and coal dust within the mine.