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Germantown employee spilled fuel from generator while filling tank

Aug 22, 2023

The City of Germantown employee responsible for a diesel fuel leak from a generator powering the Southern Avenue water treatment plant that spurred a week-long water restriction for residents is no longer with the city, officials said during a town hall Thursday evening.

It was not clear if the employee was fired or resigned, but the employee had previously been placed on leave pending an investigation into the leak. It is unclear how long the employee worked for the city, but they were referred to as a "tenured employee." The spill, the city said that same day, was caused, in part, by "human error."

That "human error," city officials said Thursday, was because the employee was not closely monitoring the fueling of the generator. At some point, they said, the fuel overflowed, ran downhill and entered the reservoir through a quarter-sized hole.

The amount of fuel spilled, they also said, was "no more than 300 gallons." The city had previously said the spill was 100 gallons.

After a brief rundown of the timeline and what the city plans to do going forward, residents peppered Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo, Germantown Administrator Jason Huisman, along with other city officials and scientists contracted by the city with questions about the safety of their water, the breakdown in communication and what changes will happen.

Among the questions that received the loudest cheers and applause asked if city officials planned to resign in the wake of the spill.

"I'm going to stick with the responsibility and commitment and my duties," Palazzolo said. "I'll do them to the best of my abilities as part of the oath. I wouldn't ask for either [of the city administrators'] resignations."

Some residents said they are still smelling diesel fuel in their water, but panelists said their water tests from fire hydrants have tested the water is drinkable. Two representatives from Protect Our Aquifer, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, said they recommend the city begins testing individual taps for traces of fuel.

"You can do a sniff test, but it's subjective," said Scott Schoefernacker, Protect our Aquifer's science director. "It's not accurate."

Germantown officials said they would "review" the possibility of testing individual taps, but when another resident asked if there were options for them to conduct their own testing at home, Protect our Aquifer Executive Director Sarah Houston said a list of EPA-certified labs would be posted to the organization's website.

Houston also asked residents in the audience to raise their hand if they were drinking their water, to which only a small portion of those present raised their hands.

"I think one thing that we recognized since Friday was that there's a gap between the safe-to-drink order that [the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation] issued on Thursday afternoon and the reality that you all are experiencing," Houston said. "One thing that is really unacceptable is that TDEC is not here, at the table, presenting to you all."

TDEC, Palazzolo said, was invited to the event but did not accept the invitation.

One resident, toward the end of the town hall, said that he thinks Germantown officials have lost credibility among residents while another asked Germantown leaders if they would take professional liability for the health of residents and guarantee that the drinking water was safe.

Palazzolo said the state oversees the water distribution and returned a clean bill for the drinking water, but did not say he would take liability personally. He also said the city would review giving residents filters to protect the water.

Germantown residents were told to avoid drinking, and using, water July 20 after people reported the smell of fuel in their water. Many residents spent the next week without access to tap water. While the all-clear was given last week, some residents still smelled diesel in their water and the city advised that they should return to using water only for flushing toilets.

Lucas Finton is a criminal justice reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.