Chemical finding alarms Keenburg neighborhood

By Thomas Wilson
star staff
twilson@starhq.com

  The discovery of an unknown chemical apparently dumped along a rural road in the Keenburg community has local residents worried about their water and their health.
  "We'd like to know if we are in threat of our bodies being contaminated with it," said Angie Maupin, a resident of Mays Road where the chemical presence was detected last weekend during a water line replacement project for the North Elizabethton Water Co-Op.
   "We're all worried about our health."
  Maupin, the mother of two small children who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment, said she and her husband noticed their water service had been interrupted on Sunday. She said officials of the North Elizabethton Co-Op brought them a small supply of bottled water on Sunday.
   Officials with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation are conducting an investigation to identify the substance and determine its source of origin. TDEC officials responded to Mays Road after being notified of the chemical finding on Sunday afternoon, according to Mark Braswell, at TDEC's Environmental Assistance Center in Johnson City. He said the utility was in the process of replacing a water line when they discovered "a solvent type odor in the soil" along the road.
  The solvent was not believed to have entered the water line or supply, according to Braswell.
   A chemical smell could be detected Tuesday afternoon near a point where an open ditch had been dug along the road. Braswell said the department had taken samples of the chemical and hoped to identify the substance by Thursday.
   "We don't know what solvent it is at this point," he said. "We have a sample submitted to a laboratory with a 24-hour turn around and we should have results on the testing tomorrow."
  He said approximately 14 households served as customers of the North Elizabethton Water Co-Op were without water service.
  "As of yesterday there was supposed to be a truck here for drinking water," Maupin said.
   Braswell said North Elizabethton Co-Op officials were using a contractor to install a new water line when the substance was discovered. He added that the utility was now installing a ductile iron pipe to carry water for the neighborhood.
   "As far as we know the solvent had not entered the water line," Braswell said. "The ductile iron is pretty much impervious to physical and chemical breaches."
  Telephone calls to the North Elizabethton Water Co-Op business office seeking comment about the finding were not returned on Tuesday. The co-op's office on Cricket Lane was closed on Tuesday afternoon.
  Maupin said a creek near the neighborhood dried up shortly after water service was disconnected. She said if the chemical agent had seeped beneath the asphalt of Mays Road, the substance could be in the creek.
  "If it has seeped under the road, it has gone down under this creek," she said.
  The North Elizabethton Co-Op purchases potable water from the city of Elizabethton. The utility is required to monitor water quality for its customers and submit a report to TDEC.
  Braswell said state officials were investigating the cause and whether the substance was the result of intentional dumping. If so, the department could initiate civil and criminal proceedings against the perpetrator.
  "There is a criminal part of most environmental laws that we have," Braswell said. "If someone is found intentionally dumping and we have evidence and witnesses to the fact, there is not just a civil penalty but there is also a criminal component to it.
  "It is quite illegal for someone to dump regulated waste."