Independent review of Germantown water crisis released

Published: Oct. 23, 2023 at 11:09 PM CDT
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GERMANTOWN, Tenn. (WMC) - An overview of a 26-page report on Germantown’s July water crisis was presented to city aldermen Monday night.

The crisis left thousands in Germantown without clean drinking water to bathe, drink, or wash clothes with for seven days.

An independent review was conducted by former Town of Collierville Administrator James Lewellen over the last 90 days.

“This was what I characterized as a ‘black swan’ event,” Lewellen said to the aldermen Monday night. “It’s something that had never happened.”

Lewellen says while putting the review together, he interviewed city employees, assisting agencies, residents, and businesses.

“I think the key questions were, ‘Were we prepared?’ And ‘How well did we execute?’” said Lewellen.

In his report, Lewellen says several things happened “at the right time and in the right sequence.”

First, the Southern Avenue Water Plant lost power due to a strong storm on July 18, causing the plant to rely on diesel-fueled generator power. An employee’s failure to monitor the refueling on July 19 allowed 250 to 300 gallons of fuel to contaminate the soil.

Then, an inch-and-a-half hole in a supply line allowed the fuel to contaminate water for thousands. The busted pipe wasn’t discovered until July 24.

Germantown Water Treatment Plant on Southern Avenue
Germantown Water Treatment Plant on Southern Avenue(Action News 5)

“Overall, given that they’ve never dealt with a situation like this, given this was something that never happened before, It took a lot of time to figure out what was going on,” said Lewellen. “I don’t think there’s any way the city could’ve shortened the response time down.”

Before that hole was found, the reservoir was emptied and cleaned, and hydrants and water lines were flushed.

Once it was discovered, the flushing process had to happen again.

However, Lewellen says the city could have improved its communication with residents.

“The information was difficult to absorb. I think they were looking for someone to put it into perspective for them and make it easier to understand,” said Lewellen.

In his report, Lewellen also says at times, the city’s message during this crisis was “misunderstood.”

He recommends the city’s communications team expand; help answer community questions and build relationships with community stakeholders and news outlets.

The report also says steps are being taken to move the generator away from the reservoir and make sure a spill-proof system is in place with an effective automatic shutoff function.

The city is also looking at its generators for any leaks or spillage.

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