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A failure of the equalization basin at the Gatlinburg, TN, wastewater treatment plant forced a container that stores sewage to rupture, sending almost 1 million gallons of untreated waste into the Little Pigeon River leaving two dead.

Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Ogle described the spill as a “catastrophic event.” She said the two dead were employees of Veolia Water NA, the company contracted to operate the city-owned plant. The dead workers are John Eslinger, 53, and Don Storey, 44. Officials found the bodies under a section of the collapsed wall.

There was a failure of the equalization basin at the plant, said Bob Miller, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When sewage comes in from the city, it pumps into that basin, where they hold it until it releases in a steady flow into the actual treatment plant.

The wastewater treatment plant remains inoperable, meaning any waste that entered the system went directly into the river.

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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.

“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.

Ogle said the basin that failed was approximately 20 years old. The plant started up 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.

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