Federal authorities are investigating the deaths of two workers who were overcome by sewer gases while working in a sewage pump tank this week in Kennebunkport, ME.
Autopsies showed that Richard Kemp, 70, of Monmouth, ME, and Winfield Studley, 58, of Windsor, ME, both died Tuesday (Sept. 27) as a result of “hydrogen sulfide toxicity in a confined space with terminal inhalation of sewage,” Kennebunkport Police Chief Craig Sanford said in a prepared statement.
|Winfield Studley (left) had more than 20 years of experience; Richard Kemp, about 30 years.|
“Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the victims,” said Sanford. “We continue to gather information and will turn over our findings” to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is investigating the accident.
The men’s bodies were recovered about 11 a.m. Tuesday from an underground 1,000-gallon concrete tank at a private, 26-room hotel called The Lodge at Turbat’s Creek.
Authorities said Kemp and Studley had been working on a submersible pump in the 4-by-5-by-6-foot tank nine feet below ground. The tank is accessed by a manhole.
Both men were employees of Stevens Electric and Pump Services, of Monmouth, which services sewage and water pump stations around the state. The family-owned business, founded in 2002, has a clean record with OSHA.
Both Kemp and Studley were experienced workers. Kemp had more than 20 years of experience before joining the company in 2002; Studley had more than 17 years’ of experience before joining it in 2006, according to a history on the company’s website.
No Breathing Apparatus
The city has hired a private contractor to inspect the tank and is awaiting that report, Sanford said. OSHA is also reviewing video and photographs of the site. Early speculation has focused on some kind of equipment malfunction, reports said.
Neither Kemp nor Studley was wearing any breathing apparatus when their bodies were recovered, officials said. One was wearing a Tyvex suit.
Maine Today reported that the tank was overflowing when the bodies were discovered, “even though it had just been pumped out less than an hour earlier.”
“That would suggest that waste water from the municipal sewer system somehow had flowed back into the private system” that serves the hotel, the newspaper said. “The sewer district maintains a 6-inch sewer line that is under constant pressure because the sewage is pumped uphill from the base of Turbots Creek Road.”
Kemp and Studley were outside the tank earlier, while another contractor was pumping it out, reports said. When the contractor disposed of the load and returned 30 to 45 minutes later, the tank was overflowing, police were called and, when they responded, one of the men’s bodies surfaced. Another was found inside later, reports said.
Rotten Eggs and Poison
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a colorless, flammable, poisonous gas produced by bacterial breakdown of organic materials and human and animal wastes.
Although notorious for its “rotten egg” smell, high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide can instantaneously kill a person’s ability to smell the gas at all and cause chemical asphyxiation with a few breaths, according to an OSHA Fact Sheet.
OSHA protocols and regulations detail safeguards for identifying, monitoring, entering and working in H2S environments. In general, respiratory protection and ventilation are required. Emergency responders to areas that may contain hydrogen sulfide require special training and respiratory protection.
Tim Stevens, owner of Stevens Electric, said in a release Tuesday night that the company was “deeply saddened by the deaths of our friends and co-workers….”
He added: “At this point, we can’t be certain about what happened today. It’s a tragedy for two families, two communities and everyone who knew Dick and Win. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends. It’s a terrible day for many people.”