Questions lingering after Gatlinburg spill

Source:, May 1, 2011
By: Natalie Neysa Alund

From debris cleanup and odor elimination to water sampling and machinery replacement, daily reports reflect what’s been happening at the Gatlinburg Wastewater Treatment Plant since a basin wall collapsed last month and killed two workers.

Although reconstruction is under way at the Banner Road facility where the April 5 catastrophe took place, officials have released little information from the investigation into what caused the collapse – an event state officials say hasn’t occurred in Tennessee in the past decade.

Officials from Veolia Water North America, the company that runs the plant owned by the city of Gatlinburg, began sending status updates to Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials April 8 alerting them of their recommissioning efforts to fully get things back online.

Veolia Water employees John Eslinger, 53, and Don Storey, 44, died in the collapse, which sent millions of gallons of raw sewage into the nearby Little Pigeon River.

Waiting on a cause

The first daily update, submitted by Veolia Water Technical Director Kevin Jones, documents how crews spent time clearing debris from the “nonimpact” area of the plant. It was one of about a dozen cleanup efforts listed on the April 8 report.

The next report, filed April 9, shows how employees placed an odor-masking product in the basin that failed.

In the days that followed, workers spent time removing rebar and rebuilding handrails on top of that same basin.

All reports indicate that workers also tested the plant’s water quality to check pH and E. coli levels.

The basin, designed by the former Flynt Engineering of Knoxville in 1996, was built by Charlotte, N.C.-based Crowder Construction Co. to aid in water treatment.

When the basin will be operational again was not immediately known this past week. But steps are being taken to get it back online, said TDEC environmental specialist Barbara Scott, who receives the daily Veolia Water updates.

“The basin has been drained, cleaned and gutted, and mechanisms in it will be repaired or replaced,” Scott said.

As of last week, Scott said, crews had not yet begun rebuilding the collapsed wall.

The reports do not detail the investigation into why the wall fell. That is being handled by Construction Engineering Consultants, an independent firm hired by the city to determine what went wrong.

And it’s taking longer than authorities anticipated.

City officials initially said they expected to have a preliminary draft detailing the root of the collapse last week. But on Tuesday, they announced that the basin’s failure was more complicated than they thought, and that an introductory report would not be prepared after all.

A final draft is expected by the end of May, said Hal Deatherage, a Construction Engineering forensic engineer. Deatherage has said at least one area of the basin did not conform to its initial design.

Like most infrastructure, including bridges and dams, wastewater treatment plant basins are designed to last about 40-50 years, according to John Schwartz, a University of Tennessee associate professor with the department of civil and environmental engineering.

He also said wastewater treatment basins have warranties.

“The initial warranty varies and would be stated in the construction contract documents between the city and contractor,” Schwartz said.

Albert Harb, a Knoxville-based attorney the city of Gatlinburg hired after the disaster, said the city does not have those records but has requested them from Crowder Construction.

“(They) should have the most complete and thorough construction files, as they built and supervised the construction,” Harb said. “But, again, we are talking about construction occurring 17 years ago.”

Crowder Construction spokesman Jody Barbee has said the company is reviewing its project records. Once it has additional information, it will “be in a position to comment further.” He did not elaborate.

Victim’s widow hires counsel

Eslinger and Storey were in the process of adjusting valves at the time of the collapse, Veolia Water officials have said.

Autopsies were not performed on either man, according to Sevier County Medical Examiner Jerry Bradley, who visited the plant the day they died.

A victim’s family members can request an autopsy be conducted, but generally it is up to the medical examiner to decide if one is warranted, according to Bradley.

“He takes all things into consideration, including what kind of accident it is, who is involved, was it witnessed, what the medical history is … and also if there is a question as to the actual cause of death,” said Michelle Case, an administrative assistant with the Sevier County Medical Examiner’s Office.

As of Thursday the victims’ families had not asked for autopsies, Case said.

Meanwhile, a Nashville-based lawyer has sent Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Ogle a letter alerting her he’d been retained to represent Eslinger’s wife.

The seven-page letter from civil litigation attorney Joe Napiltonia informed Ogle he’s been hired to investigate the collapse and asks Ogle to preserve any relevant evidence.

“She hired me to investigate any potential third-party claim,” said Napiltonia, who said he recently visited the plant with an engineer to begin his investigation.

In addition, he said, a family friend of Storey’s contacted him last week.

“His girlfriend’s father reached out to me,” Napiltonia said. “We spoke briefly.”

But as of Thursday, Napiltonia said, the father had not retained him. Harb also said Storey’s family has not sent any type of legal correspondence to city officials.

Checks within the past 10 years by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration show no similar incidents or related fatalities at wastewater plants across the state, said Jeff Hentschel, with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Department.

A TOSHA report, which could show whether any worker safety aspects contributed to the collapse and if any citations will be imposed, is expected in two weeks.

Serious violations, defined as those with a good chance that death or serious physical harm could result and that the employer knew or should have known of the hazard, can draw up to $7,000 per citation. Willful violations, those committed with an intentional disregard of the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and regulations, can draw up to $70,000 each.

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