MC’s Dr. Jay Clark: A modern-day Joe Hill for East Tennessee’s land and people

It’s been almost two decades since I first wrote about Dr. Jay Clark, MC’s director of environmental and sustainability initiatives, and I’m pretty sure neither one of us envisioned a day when we would literally have offices across from one another on the second floor of Fayerweather Hall.

Even back then, his environmental advocacy was pretty evident. At the time we were talking about his debut record — yep, in case you were unaware, ol’ “Scrappy,” as his pals call him, is a distinguished singer-songwriter. 

“The songs on the album, most of them, have a personal significance one way or the other,” he told me back then. “For instance, `Coal Mining Man’ is a song about my papaw. It’s a tribute to him and what he stood for in terms of his work ethic, but in a way, it’s somewhat of a statement about how coal miners have been treated in the past and the role black lung and big industry have played in that.”

Over the next 20 years, Clark hasn’t strayed from that lane, and while his non-political tunes still hit like heart bombs — I defy you, if you’re an animal lover, to listen to “Jesus Loves Dogs Too” and not tear up — but his advocacy for environmental issues and the working people of Appalachia makes him something a contemporary Joe Hill.

A couple of years ago this month, actually, was the last time I interviewed him for The Daily Times of Maryville, about a COVID-era virtual performance by Jay and his band — the Tennessee Tree Beavers — to tell the story of the 2008 Kingston coal ash spill. It’s an environmental horror story that took place at Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22, 2008, when an estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of coal slurry oozed into the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee rivers. 

What is coal ash? Glad you asked.

“It’s the byproduct of burning coal, and when we get coal out of the ground, that’s organic matter, full of carbon that we obviously release into the atmosphere,” Jay told me back then. “The other stuff that’s left behind is not just like wood ash — it’s a lot of heavy metals and some of the toxins that don’t burn off that are left over, and they have to dispose of it somehow. So what they do is they make these big coal ash ponds, or slurry ponds, and the ash goes in there.”

And in December 2008, the levee broke, and 5.4 million cubic yards of it went pouring into area waterways. How much is that? Put it this way: A cubic yard is the volume of a cube that’s 3 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet high. A single cubic yard is equal to roughly 201 gallons of liquid. That means more than 1 billion gallons of contaminated water, filled with the byproduct toxins from burning coal, roared down Tennessee waterways in the early hours of that December morning.

“That was the largest industrial spill in U.S. history — way bigger than the BP spill in the Gulf, way bigger than the Exxon Valdez wreck in Alaska … but hardly anybody knows about it,” he told me. “We’re talking over a billion gallons of this (stuff), and where it broke and spilled out the dam, it filled up over 300 acres, 6 to 9 feet deep pretty much anywhere you went. It went flying into the Emory River, and out of the banks, and because it happened in the early morning hours, no one got killed, even though it knocked houses off the foundation.”

No one died in the immediate aftermath … but the company contracted to clean it up, according to reporting from the Knoxville daily newspaper, found that the firm “failed to ‘exercise reasonable care’ in keeping workers safe and, in its failures, likely caused the poisoning by coal ash of the laborers, many of whom live in East Tennessee.” 

The workers were given safety vests, steel-toed boots, hard hats and goggles … but because of the way such optics might alarm the public, they were not allowed to wear respirators. The company justified it, Clark said, by claiming that “there’s no evidence coal ash poses any danger, and one of the foremen told these workers that ‘You could literally eat a pound of it every day and it won’t hurt you.’ Meanwhile, these guys tell stories of the dust flying up in the air and sparkling like glitter because of all the tiny, tiny pieces of metal in it.”

Lawsuits have been filed by workers, and the company — Jacobs Engineering Inc. — has twice offered to settle with poisoned workers who are now dealing with cancer rates and health crises at rates far higher than the public. Those offers have been rejected as too paltry, and last summer, the case went all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which has yet to rule one way or the other on whether Jacobs is protected from lawsuit.

Meanwhile, workers who have become Jay’s personal friends continue to die, waiting on justice. Many of them, I’m sure, have found a great comfort in his bulldoggish tenacity to push back against greed and injustice, and Maryville College is a better place because he brings that passion and dedication to do good on the largest possible scale to work with him every day.

Want to see Dr. Clark and the Tennessee Tree Beavers perform? You can on Saturday, April 22 — appropriately enough, Earth Day — when he and the band will play an 8 p.m. show at The Laurel Theater, 1538 Laurel Ave. in Knoxville’s Fort Sanders neighborhood, not far off the Cumberland Avenue “Strip.” Tickets are $15 in advance (although you get a buck off if you’re a student) and $20 at the door. 

Check out his website at for more information, or drop by his Fayerweather digs and check out his amazing collection of critter skulls.

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