Gatlinburg begins sewage spill cleanup

Gatlinburg, Tennessee – City officials announced Thursday that sewage from the collapsed holding container is no longer flowing into the Little Pigeon River. After the holding container’s wall collapsed on Tuesday morning, killing 2 workers, all sewage pumped in from Gatlinburg flowed directly into the river’s West Prong, a vital waterway in Sevier County and the Smoky Mountains National Park.

City officials assured the public that Gatlinburg’s drinking water is safe, but continue to warn people to stay away from the river and avoid contact with its water. The collapsed holding tank, which stored sewage until it could be pumped into the treatment facility, poured an estimated three million gallons of waste into the Little Pigeon River, creating what city manager called a “catastrophic event.” Gatlinburg officials said that the city drew its drinking water from Douglas Lake in Jefferson County, not acknowledging that the Little Pigeon River flows northward to the confluence of the French Broad River, which runs into Douglas Lake.

Cleanup efforts focused on reducing the environmental impact of the spill and restoring the storage plant to working condition. Under supervision by Tennessee’s Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), city workers established a chlorination process using liquid bleach to disinfect the sewage. Workers have also been placing signs along the Little Pigeon River warning people of bacterial contamination.

Crews are currently working to isolate the plant from the failed tank and complete a damage assessment. TDEC officials said that workers are emptying and cleaning out the operative tanks and have restored the flow of sewage to a portion of the plant using limited and modified treatment. Authorities are still investigating the accident, but so far have no idea why the 15-year-old tank collapsed. City officials haven’t determined how long it will take to get the holding plant fully operational again.

The disaster has worried residents and business owners in this area where tourism revenue is king. The Smoky Mountains National Park receives more visitors annually than any other national park in the nation, and Gatlinburg and other surrounding communities cater to the millions of visitors drawn to this region known for its scenic beauty and attractions.

“Signs warning everyone about a biohazard are not the sight people want to see when they come here,” said Jeff Smith, owner-manager of a log-cabin rental company in nearby Pigeon Forge, Tenn., which is also home to Dollywood and several other large attractions. “God willing they can get this cleaned up in time for our busy summer season,” Smith told Beasley Allen.