Rogersville sewage flood blamed on inmates flushing rags, garbage

Jeff Bobo • Mar 22, 2017 at 6:48 PM

ROGERSVILLE — City water commissioners hope installing a screen in the sewer line near the Hawkins County Justice Center will prevent future sewage overflows like one that hit several Main Street businesses two weeks ago.

On the afternoon of March 8, there was a sewer overflow at 908 E. Main Street, which is the location of a beauty shop, consignment shop, leather shop and a government office.

Water department superintendent Sean Hatchett told the Rogersville Water Commission Tuesday that the sewage flooded the interior of the businesses and flowed out into the parking lot.

Water department workers cleared a blockage in a bend of the sewer line that consisted of garbage mixed with several rags, some of which resembled orange jail jumpsuits.

On Tuesday, the water commission agreed to install a screen in the sewer line at the first manhole down from the Justice Center and jail.

This was the second time a sewer overflow has occurred on Main Street directly downhill from the jail.

Both times city officials suspected it was caused by debris such as rags and soup packets being flushed down jail commodes.

Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tony Allen told the Times-News Wednesday he can neither confirm nor deny that the debris that caused the flood on March 8 came from the the jail, but he said it could have been cleaning rags.

If inmates are caught flushing inappropriate items such as food packaging or rags down the toilet, that item is taken away from them. But, with 276 inmates in the jail on average, it’s impossible to keep an eye on everyone.

“How do you watch every inmate and what they’re flushing down the toilet?” Allen asked. “Even if it was a cleaning rag, you don’t keep track of a cleaning rag. I can’t tell you that it was from us, but I can’t deny it either. If it is ours, we want to do the right thing.

“If that screen helps to keep the system up and flowing, that’s fine, and that way we can tell if it’s coming from us. We want to do the right thing, and if it is coming from us, we want to take any measure possible that we can. The last thing we want to do is be bad neighbors.”

Hatchett told the water commission Tuesday that the city’s liability insurance provider investigated the flood and determined it was not caused through negligence of the city.

As a result, the insurance company notified Hatchett Tuesday it is denying any claims made by the owners of the businesses.

“That means they’re responsible for cleaning up their building,” Hatchett told the commission. “I do expect them (business owners) here, probably next month. ... I didn’t expect them today because I’m sure they don’t have what the total cost of it was yet.

“They were pretty mad, and I understand their position.”

Eight water department employees participated in cleanup and unclogging the line. The city also spread lime on the lot, cordoned it off with haybales and cones, and then brought in a street sweeper to get up the lime before the lot was hosed off.

Hatchett suggested installing a grate in the line at the top of the hill at the manhole closest to the Justice Center. He said that would stop any debris coming out of the jail’s sewer line, and “it will back up in there, if that’s where it’s coming from.

“The last time it stopped up real bad it was right at the backstop of the ballpark at City Park,” Hatchett said. “(They found) basically the same thing. Rags and soup packs. We know those (soup packs) came from there (the jail) because nobody else sells these. It’s almost like a lid was lifted up somewhere and everything was just dumped in. I wasn’t up there and I didn’t see them do it, so I don’t know. I just know where it came to and where we got it out at.”

The business owners could have prevented the flood, however, if they had a backflow line. Hatchett suggested that a backflow line be required for all new sewer hookups, and that it be added to all user agreements as a recommendation.

Commissioner Mark DeWitte noted that if nothing else, including the backflow recommendation on the user agreement might make property owners aware that they should install one before they suffer a similar problem.

The commission voted 4-0 to install the screen at the Justice Center.

“I would say, given the nature of that happening twice, and them (inmates) certainly going to continue to do it just out of meanness, I would put that screen in, and let it back up on their end,” DeWitte said.

Hatchett said he will monitor the screen for awhile and bring a jail representative to look at any debris that is being flushed and getting caught on the screen.                                                                            

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