A wastewater storage container collapsed in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, yesterday morning about 9 a.m., killing 2 workers and creating an environmental disaster that one city official described as a “catastrophic event.”
The two men killed in the incident were employed by Veolia Water NA, the company contracted by the city to operate the city-owned plant. They were identified as John Eslinger, 53, and Don Storey, 44. Rescue workers originally feared the men had been swept into the Little Pigeon River along with an estimated 1.5 million gallons of untreated sewage, but after 10 hours of searching the bodies were found under the container’s collapsed wall.
Bob Miller, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which manages the road in front of the plant and the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, said there was a failure of the equalization basin at the plant. Sewage from the city is pumped into the 40-foot high basin and remains there until it is pumped into the treatment plant. The collapsed basin has 12-inch thick reinforced concrete walls and was built in 1979.
City officials said that all sewage coming into the tank from the city is now going directly into the Little Pigeon River. Pumps and mobile treatment facilities were being brought in, but no details have been provided as to when the flow of waste into the river will be stopped.
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency’s area coordinator was on the scene Tuesday, along with teams from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Department of Health. Health Department officials are warning people in the area not to come into contact with water in the Little Pigeon River.
A full environmental assessment said it will begin testing water quality and plant life in and around the Little Pigeon River, which it refrained from doing until the missing workers had been found.
Gatlinburg city officials issued a statement saying that the cause of the collapse is still unknown. “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.”