6 days after fuel spill reported, most in Tennessee city still can’t drink the tap water

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — It’s been six days since residents of a Tennessee city were told that diesel fuel spilled into a local reservoir, and most of them still can’t drink their tap water.

Many of the 40,000 people who live and work in the Memphis suburb of Germantown remained under an order Wednesday to avoid using water for everything except flushing toilets. They can’t drink or boil tap water, or use it for showering or bathing. Officials advised using bottled water for personal use and the city has been distributing bottled water since Friday.

It was not immediately clear when tap water would be deemed safe for use. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation wants to see water samples come back clear of diesel before the advisory is lifted, spokesperson Eric Ward said in an email Wednesday. There have been no reports from officials about people getting sick.

The city first told residents on July 20 that a diesel fuel spill at a treatment plant tainted the water supply system. The order came after residents reported a fuel smell in their water. A generator being used at the plant because the facility lost power during recent storms spilled diesel fuel into a reservoir, officials said.

A small section of Germantown has been allowed to resume using water. There have been no reports from officials about people getting sick.

On Tuesday evening, officials said tests at the plant showed water there was clear of contamination and the city would continue testing the water and begin flushing its system. The announcement was framed by officials as good news — but it was not enough to lift the order.

“We know this situation has been an incredible inconvenience, disrupting the everyday lives of our families and businesses. And we apologize for that,” Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo said in a video message Tuesday.

Frustrated residents have taken to social media to complain about the problems.

Michael Wyrick, a 39-year-old accountant who lives with his wife and two daughters in Germantown, said living without tap water “has been an adjustment for sure.”

He said the laundry and dirty dishes have started to pile up — enough for him to take dishes to his Memphis office to clean them.

“You don’t realize how much water you use each day until you are constantly pouring it out of water bottles,” Wyrick said via email. “Not being able to bathe or shower has been challenging, especially with two young children, but friends and family have been very gracious and opened their homes to us.”

About 100 gallons of diesel contaminated about 4.2 million gallons of water that was held at the plant, officials have said.

A city consultant on Tuesday discovered contamination in soil immediately surrounding a pipe carrying clean water from the treatment plant into the underground reservoir. A breach in the pipe was found and fixed, and the contaminated soil was removed, Public Works Director Bo Mills said.

Contaminated water from the fuel spill has been pumped into the Wolf River through stormwater ditches, but officials say that won’t seriously harm the river.

“Based on the amount of diesel fuel involved, total water in the system, and stream flow rate, TDEC does not believe this incident will have any significant impact to the water quality of the Wolf River,” said Ward, the environment and conservation department spokesperson.

Sarah Houston, executive director of the Protect Our Aquifer water conservation organization, questioned Germantown’s decision to put a diesel fuel tank on top of the reservoir.

“There are lessons that we hope that Germantown takes away from this, and also other utilities in Shelby County, making sure that infrastructure that contains hazardous materials like diesel fuel is sited far away from interaction with drinking water supplies,” Houston said.

City officials have held a two news conferences, while also releasing video messages and posting details about the water distribution site on social media. But some residents have found the response and information distribution lacking, including answers about when the problem will be resolved, what the fire department does if a house catches fire, and how the problem affects hospitals, said Wyrick, the city resident.

While he says he feels lucky to live in Germantown — a predominantly affluent suburb known for good schools — Wyrick does question whether creating a backup plan for the current situation or improving roads has taken a back seat to business expansion and city growth. The city has added restaurants and apartment complexes in recent years, Wyrick noted.

“This situation has me looking forward to the next election,” Wyrick said.

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Cover Photo: People stand by cases of bottled water as the City of Germantown gives them out to residents on Monday, July 24, 2023 at Forest Hill Elementary School in Germantown, Tenn. Residents of the Tennessee city were told that diesel fuel spilled into a local reservoir, and to avoid drinking tap water. People remain under an order Wednesday, July 26 to avoid using water for everything except flushing toilets. They can’t drink or boil tap water, or use it showering or bathing. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian via AP)

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