The Gatlinburg (TN) Wastewater Treatment Plant will not face federal penalties for the collapse of a sewage basin wall last month that killed two workers and dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Little Pigeon River.
But the facility is not out of the clear. Two separate state agencies are still investigating the April 5 disaster, and the widow of one worker is already pursuing legal action in the case.
EPA: ‘It’s Their Call’
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, will not issue any fines or citations in the accident, regional EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young said Tuesday (May 10).
Harris-Young said the federal agency would defer enforcement decisions to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), the lead agency on the case for environmental issues, unless TDEC requested EPA’s assistance.
“It’s their call what they’re going to pursue,” Harris-Young said.
Veteran Employees Killed
The victims were John Eslinger, 53, and Don Storey, 44, employees of Veolia Water North America, a Chicago-based company that operates the Gatlinburg plant and more than 200 other wastewater facilities.
Eslinger and Storey were adjusting valves when the 40-foot-high concrete wall of a million-gallon wastewater equalization basin collapsed without warning and crushed them, authorities said. Their bodies were recovered about eight hours later.
Workers comb the debris of a wastewater equalization basin wall that fatally crushed two workers April 5 in Gatlinburg, TN.
Since the accident, Veolia has been filing daily reports with TDEC, detailing the repair and recommissioning efforts underway at the plant. The company is currently reviewing bids to demolish the rest of the basin, the reports show.
Tennessee’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating. That report is expected in about six weeks, a spokesman said Tuesday.
TOSHA did not inspect the 14-year-old plant prior to the accident, saying it conducts inspections only in response to an incident or complaint, and the plant had had neither.
TDEC Probe Continues
TDEC’s Division of Water Pollution Control “continues to monitor the situation closely” and cannot say when its investigation will be complete, agency spokeswoman Meg Lockhart wrote in an email Tuesday.
After the accident, about four million gallons of sewage was “bypassed” into the Little Pigeon River for about 36 hours with TDEC’s approval.
Current sampling “indicates that water quality standards for recreation are being met,” and additional sampling is ongoing, Lockhart reported. Restoring plant operations “helped to improve water quality in a very short duration.”
However, she added, “TDEC wishes to maintain the water quality advisories issued in April as a precautionary measure.” She also noted that “the affected waters have been posted annually against body contact recreation during the summer months since 1993.”
The city’s own probe is also continuing. Days after the accident, Gatlinburg hired Construction Engineering Consultants of Knoxville, TN, to determine the cause of the accident.
The independent contractor’s team includes structural, transportation and water resources engineers, and that report is expected this month.
However, the consultants have already suggested that the collapse may be related to a construction problem.
Hal Deatherage, of Construction Engineering Consultants, recently told The Knoxville News-Sentinel that Crowder Construction, which built the plant, “apparently did not follow design specifications.” Crowder told The Associated Press that the company did not have enough information to respond to Deatherage’s remarks.
Crowder studies structural failures, says Deatherage, a licensed professional engineer and structural professor in the civil engineering department of the University of Tennessee.
Litigation is also likely. Joe Napoltonia, a Nashville lawyer, notified Gatlinburg’s city manager on April 16 that Eslinger’s widow, Brenda, had retained him “to investigate the collapse.” The letter requested that the city preserve all relevant print and digital records in the case.
The day of the accident, Brenda Eslinger told WVLT-TV that her husband, a lead operator, had said “years ago” that the basin “was cracked and that it was a danger.” Eslinger, a 26-year employee of the plant, “was afraid some day this would happen," his wife said.
After the accident, Gatlinburg utilities manager Dale 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 April 5, Phelps said.
Veolia has several open cases with OSHA involving plants in California and Louisiana; it also has a half-dozen closed cases from a variety of plants dating to 2004.