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John Thompson

Elizabethton Bureau Chief
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Carter officials don’t know cause of jail sicknesses yet

September 12th, 2011 10:42 pm by John Thompson

ELIZABETHTON — County officials do not yet know what caused several officers at the Carter County Jail to be overcome with dizziness and nausea and require treatment at Sycamore Shoals Hospital on the night of Aug. 19.
Carter County Emergency Management Director Andrew Worley briefed the Health and Welfare Committee of the Carter County Commission on the status of the investigation during the committee’s monthly meeting Monday.
He said the county may never know the cause, even though he has asked 10 different state and federal agencies to assist in the investigation. Federal health agencies have declined to get involved because there has been no recurrence and no threat of an epidemic.
Hazardous materials teams were mobilized, much of the east side of downtown Elizabethton was sealed off and several officers were treated during the incident.
Currently, there seems to be two possibilities of what happened, Worley said. First, a prisoner being brought to the jail or some of the evidence from his arrest may have been the source.
There was no evidence of any chemicals found in the wastewater from the decontamination process. All the water from the cleanup was saved for analysis. Another mystery — if the contaminant was on the man arrested, he had been in a car with a woman prior to the arrest. She was not stricken.
The other possibility is some unknown chemical in the sewer system underneath the jail’s sally port may have emitted fumes that overcame the officers.
Worley has discussed the possibility with Johann Coetzee, director of Elizabethton’s wastewater treatment system. He said such a chemical could have washed into the sewer system from a construction site, or it might have been an intentional criminal act directed against the sheriff’s department.
If such a chemical had formed into noxious gas, it is no longer in the sewer system. Worley said Coetzee told him there have been heavy rains since that time that have flushed the system clean. If there was a chemical, there is no longer any trace.
“It was a very odd situation,” Worley said. He said he did not think it was a case of mere panic. All the patients were revived with the same antidote.
In other matters, the Health and Welfare Committee heard from Beth Street about her role with the University of Tennessee Extension office. Street said she works with families on health and wellness and nutrition programs. She provides information on gardening, canning and also teaches court-ordered parenting classes.
Street said the information she provides comes from the University of Tennessee. “It is all research-based information,” she said.
The Law Enforcement Committee also met Monday and voted to hold a workshop session to develop a fireworks ordinance. The committee has been asked by the volunteer fire departments to limit the number of sellers of fireworks. The workshop session will be held Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. in the main courtroom.
The committee also will recommend a resolution that will allow the sheriff’s department to award the service pistol used by a deputy as a gift upon his retirement.
Earlier, the Budget Committee met and elected Harry Sisk as the new chairman after Tom Bowers announced he did not want to head the committee for another year. Bowers thanked Finance Director Ingrid Deloach for her help during the past year.
The committee agreed to recommend payment to Crawford Drywall for the overruns on the renovations of the Veterans Monument. The original estimated cost had been $9,500. Mayor Leon Humphrey said there were unexpected expenses normally seen in renovating century-old structures.
The entire surface had to be stripped and a door with special dimensions had to be ordered. The overruns amounted to an additional $4,115, which the committee will recommend for payment to the entire commission next week.
The committee approved two requests from the sheriff’s department. The first was a transfer of $12,000 from the department’s technology fund to pay for a portion of the installation of a computer system that will keep track of prisoners. The system will use wristbands similar to the ones used in hospitals.
The committee also approved the purchase of a state-of-the art floor scrubber and cleaner for the new jail. The sheriff’s department found a good buy on a demonstrator that will come with a new warranty. The price is $6,373 and money for the scrubber will come from salary line items for jailers who have not yet been hired.

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