Germantown residents share frustrations as water crisis continues

City working with federal, state, and local agencies on remediation
Published: Jul. 24, 2023 at 10:43 PM CDT

GERMANTOWN, Tenn. (WMC) - Frustration is growing five days after Germantown water customers were first advised not to drink their tap water after diesel fuel contaminated an underground reservoir.

Residents are doing what they can since they can’t use the water to drink, cook, bathe, do laundry, or do anything other than flush commodes.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Germantown resident Scott Cloek. “It’s a unique situation.”

Homeowners east of Forest Hill Irene Road were cleared to use their water, while others took advantage of a water giveaway Monday, at Bailey Station Elementary in Collierville.

“I never thought our cat would be drinking bottled water,” said Germantown resident Pat Jacobs.

During a press conference Monday, city leaders could give no estimate on when it would be safe for everyone to use tap water.

“It’s important to stay hydrated,” said Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dale Criner.

Dr. Criner is urging residents to not drink tap water, even in this heat.

“Diesel fuel in trace amounts, any petroleum product in a very short duration of exposure, many times, patients may tend to have no symptoms, it should be mild gastrointestinal upset, nausea, sometimes diarrhea, but she complains of headaches, fatigue,” said Dr. Criner.

He suggests trying to use city-provided resources like water giveaways.

Dr. Criner also says Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown has emergency planning for all kinds of scenarios, including this one.

He also says they’ve made plans for patients with elective surgeries to be moved or postponed until all of this is resolved.

“Even if it’s, ‘We don’t know,’ that’s what you want to hear,” said Cloek. “We want to see good leadership and a good transparency in a lot of communication and that will be the key for everything, keeping everybody happy.”

Cloek and Jacobs plan to do what they can to conserve the freshwater they have, but they’re hoping for a resolution soon.

“We now just have to figure out something that this will not happen and go forward,” said Jacobs. “I am glad that I am not in their position because I know it’s difficult, but I wish they would be a little more transparent little bit more with the consumers.”

Action News 5 has asked the City of Germantown if more water giveaways are planned.

We have not heard back yet.

Action News 5 also spoke with one of the water conservation experts brought in to help Germantown solve its water crisis.

With test samples still coming back positive for contamination, Germantown leaders are thinking about bringing a new water tower online early so they can shut down the southern facility and clean it.

In the meantime, the city is working with federal, state, and local agencies on remediation, including a team at the University of Memphis that specializes in protecting our water here in the Mid-South.

“It doesn’t take much to contaminate large volumes of water,” said Brian Waldron, the director of CAESER, the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research at the University of Memphis. “We have to find out how it’s getting into the water source, contain it and remove the fuel.”

CAESER previously helped Germantown develop a plan to protect the city’s water wells and is now assisting in the clean-up of the diesel fuel that spilled from a generator into the Southern Avenue reservoir.

“Right now, we’re just in a race to find the contaminant, get all of it out, flush the system and get people back their water,” Waldron told Action News 5.

Germantown’s also getting guidance from the EPA and TDEC, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which just tested Germantown’s water June 28 of this year.

“We recently had our water tested by the state as is done on an annual basis,” said Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo during a Monday news conference. “That was only about a month ago. And we were in full compliance and passed at that level.”

Records reviewed by Action News 5 show TDEC has issued 15 violations to the Germantown water department since 2004, minor and major monitoring violations involving nitrates, asbestos, and chlorine.

The most recent violations occurred in 2022 for failing to meet the nitrate monitoring requirement. High levels of nitrates can occur from fertilizer runoff or landfills.

The contaminant in this case, diesel fuel, is still appearing in water samples.

“Right now, we’ve issued a do not drink, do not bathe, only flush order. We would hope people would adhere to that,” said Mayor Palazzolo.

Germantown residents east of Forest Hill Irene have been given the all-clear to use the water again. Those west, including the mayor and his family, are still waiting for clean water to drink, bathe, cook and clean.

“They have a company called ENSAFE,” said Waldron, “who’s renowned for doing this type of work, this type of remediation. They’re going to get in and clean that stuff out before it goes any deeper.”

Waldron says Germantown has a protective clay layer, just like Memphis, protecting its water source from contamination.

It’s the 4.2 million gallons of water that were in Germantown’s system when the contamination occurred that is the concern.

There is still no timeline on when all of the city’s 42,000 residents will have clean drinking water again.

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