Lawyers debate over recourse of sewer line during NAF trial

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

Two witnesses took the stand Monday and more than 35 pieces of evidence were exhibited during a civil suit trial the city of Elizabethton has against North American Fibers Corporation.
The suit asked that NAF, North American Corporation (NAC), and Charles Green, individually and as "alter ego" for the companies, be held responsible for the cost of a new section of sewer line placed after a landfill was built over the existing line on NAF property. The amount of the suit is more than $1 million and covers the cost of the design and construction of the new sewer line as well as interest for yearly maintenance.
   According to testimony in court, the city had a sewer line easement allowing them to place the line on the property in 1957. During the 1980's, NAF later developed the site above the sewer line as a landfill for fly ash, which is formed from the non-combustible minerals found in coal.
   According to Johannes P. Coetzee, deputy director of public works for Elizabethton, approximately 1,750 feet of the sewer line are covered by the landfill, as well as four manhole covers.
   The city claims that, not only does this burden the sewer line and create the possibility of damage to it, maintenance of that portion of the western connector sewer line is also hindered.
   "We had no access to the line to assess the condition of the line," Coetzee said. "The immediate problem that I had was that, in the event of a problem, the line could not quickly, easily and cost- effectively be accessed."
   According to Coetzee, inaccessibility to the line could possibly pose a serious threat to public health in Elizabethton. "Our main concern was that you could have a catastrophe with millions of gallons of waste water spilling into the Watauga River and flooding fields upstream."
   Coetzee also testified that, currently, the municipal sewer system suffers "periodic backups during heavy rains." He stated that parts of the lines which are accessible have been inspected, and no problems were found.
   The city uses a special camera to inspect sewer lines, and, according to Coetzee, the camera cannot be used in the portion of the western connector line covered by the landfill because if the camera became lodged in the line, it couldn't be retrieved before creating a backup.
   According to testimony given by Coetzee, the city made Green aware of the possible consequences of the landfill as well as options to rectify the situation. He further stated that Green suggested building an alternate sewer route or excavating the manholes to provide better access.
   "Having access to the manholes is a moot point in my opinion," Coetzee said. "Having access to the entire sewer line is the ideal situation."
   After Coetzee gave testimony on behalf of the city, Darrell Hale, with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, took the stand. Hale said that, at the time the landfill was closed by then North American Rayon Corporation in 1988, company officials neglected to tell TDEC that a municipal sewer line ran underneath the landfill.
   Hale stated TDEC's main concern at that time was the run-off of water from the landfill site and the possible contamination to ground water supplies that it posed.
   The trial in the civil matter, which is being presided over by Chancellor Richard Johnson, will continue Tuesday morning in Johnson City.