Cause of fatal Gatlinburg wastewater accident unknown

12:32 PM, Apr 7, 2011   |    comments
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WBIR Report, Wednesday, April 6, 2011, 6:00 p.m. 

Gatlinburg officials said they still do not know what caused the failure of the tank that led to the death of two employees at the city's waste water treatment plan.

"At this point any guess is premature speculation," Dale Phelps, the City's Utilities Manager said.

Cindy Ogle, Gatilinburg City Manger said they will hire an independent contractor to investigate what remains of the 40 foot wall that held untreated sewage at the facility.  Veolia Water North America is a private company contracted to operate the plan and is currently working on their own investigation into what caused the accident.

At this point, the City of Gatlinburg is trying to remove solid materials from its waste water and is adding chlorine, but all water that would typically go to the waste water plant (about 2 million gallons per day) is now flowing into the Little Pigeon River. Ogle urged residents to conserve if possible to reduce the amount of water flowing into the river without the proper treatment process.

"We are undertaking a comprehensive review of the facilities.  In order to assure the safety of all personnel, the electrical systems are being inspected, and tested to assure no potential electrical hazard exists prior to re-energizing," Keavin Nelson, the President of Veolia North America said.  "Our those and prayers are with the families of these two men (John Eslinger and Donald Story) in this tragic time."

Veolia has offered support to those families and their employees via grief counseling in Sevier County. 

"We have lost two employees and our employees across North America have heavy hearts about this incident," Nelson said.

Safety Record

OSHA has never had any issues at the Gatlinburg facility and until this incident, had never inspected the waste water plant.

According to Tennessee's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in order for the agency to conduct an inspection one of two requirements typically must be met.

1.  There must be a catastrophic injury event where three or more employees are hurt


2.  The agency must receive a complaint from an employee about working conditions.

Phelps says he doesn't remember the exact date of any at the plant, but recalls walking along the top of the tank not that long ago.  He says employees at the plant do daily walk-throughs of the facility to check for safety.  The equalization basin that collapsed was built in 1996.

The company once against stressed its safety record nationally, which Veolia says is about 1.5 times better than the national average calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

TDEC advised it is not a good idea to physically come into contact with the water in the Little Pigeon River at this point.  The agency is placing more signs along the river warning residents and visitors about the possibly hazardous conditions in the water due to the plant's current non-working condition.

Water Quality

Ogle said the priority has switched to mitigating the possible environmental damage caused by the spill.  The priority Tuesday was finding the two missing workers, who were killed when the wall collapsed.

The plant in Gatlinburg has a long history of violations and issues with the Environmental Protection Agency as it relates to the water quality and operations.  According to the EPA, the waste water plant was found "not compliant" in 7 of the last 12 checks conducted at the site.

However, the facility has not faced any fines as a result of those checks, which related to E-Coli levels according to EPA documents.

Even with the additional 850,000 gallons and continuing flow Gatlinburg, there is no reason not to drink any of the municipal drinking water in Sevier County, according to TDEC.


Previous story: Wednesday, April 6, 2011, 12:00 p.m.

Officials are working Wednesday to determine what caused a raw sewage storage tank to fail on Tuesday, and how to move forward.  Two workers were killed, and thousands of gallons of untreated waste and stormwater were dumped into the Little Pigeon River.

The first item they are focusing on is how to get the electrical system back online to get power to the plant.   Then they can focus on getting debris out of the system and getting back online.

Until then, TDEC tells us there is no waste coming into the plant.

At the site of the old water plant further upstream, they are straining the solid waste, but all of the wastewater is being routed directly into the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
They are using a chlorine drip on that water in an attempt to treat it, but that is not the same as fully treating wastewater in a plant.

With that in mind, TDEC is urging people to avoid contact with the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River due to contamination.

One other note, yesterday's tank released wastewater into the river but it's likely that none of it was solid waste.  Solid waste is strained out of the system before it reaches the tank that ruptured Tuesday.

There was about 850 thousand gallons of wastewater that went into the river on Tuesday.  TDEC says that Gatlinburg normally produces around 2.3 million gallons of wastewater every day, so that means right now about 2 million gallons of wastewater is going directly into the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River every day until the plant gets back up and running.

TDEC is asking residents in Gatlinburg to conserve water when they can.

10News will have more on the investigation, and the possible long-term affects of the spill, on 10News at 5 & 6, and on

Previous Story

After close to 10 hours of searching, officials have found the bodies of the two workers missing since Tuesday morning.

According to officials with Gatlinburg Fire Department, officials found the two missing bodies under the wall that fell.

Officials identified the two as 53-year-old John Eslinger and 44-year-old Don Storey.

According to a friend at the scene, Eslinger is from Sevierville.

Darrell Baker used to work at the plant which was built back in 1979. He worked with Eslinger, a man Darrell thought was working the evening shift.

"You know that don't start till 3, I thought maybe he'd be at home and his wife answered the phone and she was hysterical," said Baker.

Officials with the City of Gatlinburg and Veolia Water North America released a statement which states,

"We are very deeply saddened to share the tragic news that the two missing Veolia Water employees, John D. Eslinger and Donald A. Storey, perished in today's accident.

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 coworkers and good friends.

The exact cause of the collapse of the equalization basin wall at the wastewater treatment facility is being investigated. The City of Gatlinburg and Veolia Water are actively collaborating with all regulatory agencies in this matter."

Previous story

Emergency officials have changed their estimate of how much wastewater was spilled.  Initial reports had it as up to 3 million gallons.  That reduced to 1.5 million, then to a million.  Now they are estimating 850,000 gallons were spilled.

Previous story 

The City of Gatlinburg released a statement with more information about the collapse of the wastewater equalization basin at the Gatlinburg Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Emergency fire and rescue personnel were called to the scene at 9 am.  City officials say their "top priority is the welfare and safety of the employees at the facility."

An extensive search and rescue operation continues as emergency personnel look for two Veolia Water employees at the site who remain unaccounted for.

The identities of the two men have not been released, though city officials are in contact with their families.

The cause of the collapse is still not known.  The press release says "While a mudslide did occur in the area, that event took place at 1 a.m. approximately one mile from the facility. The exact cause of the collapse of the wall at the Wastewater Treatment Facility remains unclear."

Previous story

Officials with TDEC tell 10News that their teams are holding off on making their environmental assessment right now, because the search and rescue operations need to take priority.  After that is complete, they will begin testing water quality and plant life.

The wastewater treatment plant is inoperable right now.  That means that any waste that enters the system is going directly into the river.  They have pumps and mobile treatment equipment on the way.

Previous story

A container that stores sewage at the Gatlinburg wastewater treatment plant has ruptured, sending 1.5 million gallons of untreated waste into the Little Pigeon River and possibly sweeping two people into the water.

Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Ogle described the spill as a "catastrophic event".  She said the two people who are missing are employees of Veolia Water NA, the company contracted to operate the city-owned plant.

Bob Miller, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said there was a failure of the equalization basin at the plant.  When sewage comes in from the city, it's pumped into that basin, where it is held until it's released in a steady flow into the actual treatment plant.

City Manager Ogle said the basin that failed was approximately 20 years old.  The plant was built in 1979.

The Park Service is involved because they manage the road that goes in front of the Visitors Center and the plant and they manage the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.  They are checking for water quality issues. 

Miller said the park service is working with Gatlinburg Police to close the left lane of the Spur southbound.  That's the lane that borders the river and that allows vehicles to move up and down that area to respond to the situation.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency's area coordinator responded to the scene, along with teams from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Department of Health, all at the request of the local EMA director.

The Tennessee Department of Health advises people to not come into contact with the water in the Little Pigeon River.  City officials say the drinking water is safe.

Because the missing employees may have been swept into the river, swift water rescue crews were staged at the Rivers Edge RV Park at the entrance to the Spur, which is downstream from the plant.  

10News crews on the scene say those rescue crews have a line stretched across the river.

Ogle said crews will also use a crane and other heavy equipment to search under the basin wall that collapsed.  The wall was about 40 feet high and made of 12-inch thick reinforced concrete. 

The plant is located behind the Gatlinburg Visitor Center on the area of Highway 441 known as the Spur.  Traffic is very slow in that area.

10News will have more on this developing story as it becomes available.

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