The city of Gatlinburg, Tenn., and the company that runs its wastewater treatment plant have been dismissed from lawsuits stemming from the deaths of two workers when a wall collapsed. However, charges are proceeding against the structure's contractor and engineer and against the plant's contractor and engineer.

A jury trial is scheduled for June 2015.

John Eslinger, 53, lead operator, and Donald Storey, 44, operator, were killed in April 2011, when the 40-ft equalization-tank wall collapsed onto the flow-control building where they were working, dumping over 2 million gallons of raw sewage into the Little Pigeon River.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration investigators, in an October 2011 report, blamed the collapse on "deficiency in the concrete wall construction," including not following specifications.

No safety issues were cited.

The Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation immediately began monitoring downstream water, as the river runs along U.S. 441, the highly traveled road that runs from Pigeon Forge through Gatlinburg to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, the river was swollen from recent heavy rains, and no citations were issued. Earlier, the plant had been cited for failure to comply with TDEC and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency discharge permits.

The families of the two men filed suit in Sevier County Circuit Court against Gatlinburg; Crowder Construction Co., Charlotte, N.C., which built the plant; Vaughn & Melton Consulting Engineers Inc., Middlesboro, Ky., the engineer; and Carpenter Wright Engineers, Knoxville, consulting engineer. Gatlinburg also sued Veolia Water North America, Chicago.

The families are seeking $17 million in damages for each victim.

"We thought the city was a victim of poor construction … [and] negligence on the part of the construction firm and the engineering firm," says Bob Pryor, the Knoxville attorney representing the families.

Crowder and Vaughn & Melton sought a summary judgment, citing the state's four-year statue of repose, but that was denied. The trial is set for June 2015.

Carpenter Wright was dismissed from the case because it only reviewed proposed wall repairs in 1997 but never was hired to evaluate the basin.

The plant, which was built in 1979, is designed for 3-million-gallons-per-day flow and usually processes about 2.3 mgd.

Failed Replacement

The failed equalization tank was replaced in 2012, when Southern Constructors Inc., Knoxville, Tenn., built a 1-million-gallon, prestressed tank for a $1.6-million job. Under contract with the city, McGill Associates, Sevierville, Tenn., was the engineer, construction contract administrator and construction inspector.

There have been no substantive changes in daily operations at the plant since the collapse, mainly because the new round tank takes the place of the failed rectangular tank, says Dale Phelps, Gatlinburg utilities manager.

The city has signed another five-year operations contract with Veolia, he says.

The plant was the site of a third fatality in 2012, when an earthen wall collapsed during the demolition of the equalization tank, killing Michael "Mike" Eugene Wells, 58.

The Tennessee OSHA division cited his employer, Roberson Construction & Land Development, Enka, N.C., with three "serious" violations, fining the company $7,200.

 


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