BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
A substance believed to be blood from a local funeral home operation likely contaminated the storm water system along College Street in downtown Greeneville for an as-yet-undetermined amount of time, according to local and state officials.
Officials blocked off College Street on Thursday as a result of sewer line issues, questionable fluids in the storm water, and a resulting gas line break.
Repairs to the sewer line were complete around 5:30 p.m., and the street reopened shortly thereafter.
Workers first discovered the issue during the morning hours while conducting an ongoing storm water drainage infrastructure replacement project.
The Greene County Highway Department accidentally hit and damaged an outer portion of a sewer line outside Walters State Community College, but did not break the line, according to Joey Harman, a supervisor with the Greeneville Water Department.
Shortly thereafter, across a parking lot, accumulating liquid in the "hole" where workers were replacing storm water pipes appeared as a "red substance" rather than as normal storm water drainage, according to City Administrator Todd Smith.
Officials removed workers from the scene and called in the Greeneville-Greene County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency's Hazmat teams, who then called in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).
FUNERAL HOME SEWAGE
"They've made some preliminary analysis," Smith said. "They potentially -- and we potentially -- think that it could be coming from Jeffers Funeral [and Cremation Service].
"It is a red substance," Smith confirmed. "It could be blood. It could be embalming fluid. It's a likely candidate of what's going into the [storm water] system."
Justin Jeffers, funeral director and embalmer with Jeffers, said this morning that the substance would have been blood.
"No embalming fluid goes directly into the sewer system," Jeffers said. "All we flush is blood."
The line breakage was just at the foot of the driveway to Jeffers, but was on the Town's property and therefore not the responsibility of the business, Water Superintendent Laura White said.
TDEC's official spokesperson, Meg Lockhart, said Tuesday that there were no solids, but a "liquid mixture of blood [and] also normal fluids used in a funeral home operation" that had entered the storm drainage system.
Such substances can legally be disposed of through the sewer system, she added.
Four Seasons Environmental pumped and flushed the storm drains in the area, removing and properly disposing of the materials, she said.
"Any environmental impacts would be minimal," she confirmed, noting that there was no contamination to soil, as the pipe was encased in concrete.
Any contamination of the Big Spring would not have been enough to present a risk to the health of Richland Creek, Lockhart added.
She said she could not, however, speculate as to whether the incident could present a human health risk.
Workers who may have encountered the substance were decontaminated in order to be "overly cautious," Smith said Thursday.
"We're treating this substance as a worst-case scenario," he added.
"I don't think there is a [public health] issue at this point. We've taken the utmost care."
The Greene County Health Department confirmed this morning that they offered aid and advice during the incident.
Dr. David Kirschke, regional medical director, supervised the process and said this morning that the department believes the risk to employees working at the site was "very low," but that they were still encouraged to take steps to protect themselves.
Harmon, of the Water Department, said that the damaged sewer line was lying over a broken storm drain, resulting in the contamination.
Dye placed in sinks at Jeffers Funeral and Cremation Service found its way as far down the line as the Big Spring behind the Greeneville-Greene County Public Library, Harmon said.
Smith confirmed that the Greeneville Fire Department conducted this dye test on Thursday after the red substance was found in the storm water system.
GAS LINE ISSUES
Workers broke a gas line while removing asphalt in an attempt to uncover the broken sewer line, according to Public Works Director Brad Peters.
Atmos Engery resolved the broken gas line during the afternoon hours of Thursday, and workers with the Greeneville Water Department continued to investigate the broken sewer line.
Although there was some on-site speculation as to how the sewer line became damaged, officials had not yet been able to determine when or how the damage occurred, Smith said, adding only that it had been "cut."
White estimated that the breakage in the storm drain may have been caused by recent heavy rain or the ongoing construction in the area.
However, she also noted that the line had been bored at some point.