Authorities are investigating the collapse of a Tennessee wastewater containment wall that killed two workers and dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Little Pigeon River.
The victims were identified as John Eslinger, 53, and Don Storey, 44, employees of Veolia Water North America, a Chicago-based company that operates the Gatlinburg Wastewater Treatment Plant and more than 200 other wastewater facilities.
The bodies of Eslinger and Storey, who were both from Sevierville County, TN, were recovered about 6 p.m. CDT Tuesday (April 5) from the rubble of a wastewater equalization basin wall at the Gatlinburg plant. The 40-foot-high wall of the million-gallon basin collapsed about 9:30 a.m. CDT Tuesday.
"Employees and officials of both the City of Gatlinburg and Veolia Water are expressing deepest sympathies to the families and are extremely saddened to lose co-workers and good friends," according to a joint statement.
Plant ‘Still Under Stress’
After the accident, sewage was “bypassed” into the Little Pigeon River until 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, when wastewater treatment at the facility was restored, according to a statement released by Veolia.
Veolia called the bypass operation “a necessary emergency measure required to prevent customer sewage backups” that was “done with full knowledge of” the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC).
“Full treatment is not yet restored, and while the plant is still under stress, it is operating normally,” the statement said. “Discharge from the facility is consistent with secondary treatment systems. Veolia Water and City experts will continue to work toward full restoration of wastewater treatment and the investigation into the cause of the collapse.”
Authorities could not say how much of the largely untreated sewage ended up in the river, but published reports estimated four million gallons.
|Workers comb the debris of a collapsed wastewater equalization basin wall in Gatlinburg, TN.|
Crews put up signs to warn tourists away from the river, which was already under advisory because of previous concerns about bacteria, officials said. No drinking water comes from the contaminated portion of the river, city officials said.
“We’re doing extensive sampling upstream and downstream to determine the whole impact,” said DEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton. “We don’t yet know the environmental effect.”
The collapse involved an overflow storage basin for liquid waste that commonly inundates the plant after a heavy rain, according to Calabrese-Benton said.
Dale Phelps, the city's Utilities Manager, said the plant was involved in “high flow routines” when the accident occurred. Two other employees on site were uninjured, he said.
A host of city and state agencies, as well as Veolia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are investigating the cause of the collapse and the contamination of the river.
"At this point, any guess [as to the cause] is premature speculation," said Phelps.
One possible contributing factor, said city manager Cindy Ogle: a mudslide that occurred about one mile from the facility at 1 a.m. Tuesday.
But Eslinger had told his wife, Brenda, “years ago” that the basin “was cracked and that it was a danger,” Brenda Eslinger told WVLT-TV. Eslinger, a lead operator, had worked at the plant 26 years and “was afraid some day this would happen," his wife said.
Gatlinburg officials have hired Construction Engineering Consultants of Knoxville to conduct an independent investigation, and the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also working on the case.
TOSHA has never inspected the plant, saying it does so only in response to an incident or complaint, and the plant has had neither.
The state’s DEC has regulatory control over the plant and checks water treatment processes but does not monitor safety or structural integrity, knoxnews.com reports.
Phelps called the plant “a very good facility” but admitted that the tank that collapsed had failed its original inspection in 1997 because of a weakness in one wall. The wall was shored up and was not the same wall that collapsed Tuesday, Phelps said.
Veolia and OSHA
Veolia is well acquainted with OSHA.
In January, OSHA opened two cases on consecutive days involving Veolia-run plants in Atwater, CA, and Chalmette, LA. The California case involves one other-than-serious violation and no fine as yet; the Louisiana case involves two serious violations and a current fine of $4,800, reduced from $6,600. Details of the violations were not available.
OSHA records also show these closed cases:
• 2008: Veolia paid $5,950 (reduced from $8,500) for three serious and two “other than serious” violations (reduced from five serious violations) at a plant in Fall River, MA.
• 2007: Veolia paid $2,500 (reduced from $5,000) for one “other” violation (reduced from serious) at a plant Coffeyville, KS.
• March 2006: The company paid a $3,195 fine for two serious and five “other” violations (reduced from a $4,875 fine for three serious and four other violations) at the Fall River plant.
• February 2006: Veolia paid a $165 fine for one other-than-serious violation at a plant in Bloomington, CA.
• 2005: The company paid a $5,625 fine for one “other” violation (reduced from three serious and two other) at a plant in Oregon, OH.
• 2004: The company paid a $9,000 fine (reduced from $12,745) for one serious and seven “other” violations (reduced from two serious and six other) for an accident at a plant in San Diego, CA. OSHA said an employee was “inside the odor control vessel trying to chip and dislodge a large slab of the bound plastic media and sulfate salts” when the slab collapsed and fell. The employee suffered a severe fracture of an ankle and rib and bruised his shoulder and elbow.