The Columbus Water Works Board of Commissioners and utility officials refused Monday to release to the public details on the cause of an April water tank collapse.
Local engineering firm Jordan Jones and Goulding hired Krebs and Associates of Birmingham to examine the 32-foot high steel tank to see what caused it fail and spill 6 million gallons of Chattahoochee River water near the intersection of J.R. Allen Parkway and River Road.
The tank collapse on April 25 caused property damage to areas surrounding the North Columbus Water Works plant.
Water Works President Bob Tant was asked to release a copy of the report at the conclusion of the scheduled board meeting.
“I am not going to release the report at this time on advice of my attorney,” Tant said.
Commission Chairman Phillip Thayer, Mayor Jim Wetherington, Commissioner Karl Douglass, Commissioner Carole Rutland, Commissioner Billy Blanchard, Water Works Senior Vice President for Finance Emory Blount and Tant met with attorneys Jorge Vega and J. Barrington Vaught of Hatcher Stubbs Land Hollis and Rothschild LLC. The meeting was closed to the public.
Vega was asked prior to the closed session to release details in the report.
“It would put us in a tenuous legal position,” he said.
He cited a provision in the Georgia Open Records Act that allowed the closed session to discuss potential settlements.
The Open Records Act exemption reads: “The attorney-client privilege recognized by state law to the extent that a record pertains to the requesting or giving of legal advice or the disclosure of facts concerning or pertaining to pending or potential litigation, settlement, claims, administrative proceedings, or other judicial actions brought or to be brought by or against the agency or any officer or employee; provided, however, attorney-client information may be obtained in a proceeding under Code Section 50-18-73 to prove justification or lack thereof in refusing disclosure of documents under this Code section provided the judge of the court in which said proceeding is pending shall first determine by an in camera examination that such disclosure would be relevant on that issue.”
Vega also cited confidentiality of attorney work product.
Wetherington, who attended the closed session for about 15 minutes before leaving for another appointment, said the release of the report hinged on one issue.
“The way I read state law, if the investigation is complete, we have an obligation to release the information,” Wetherington said. “If it is not complete, we can withhold the information until such time as it is complete.”
Vega was asked if the investigation was completed.
“There is not an easy answer to that,” he said. “There are more parties involved. Probably not.”
The Water Works insurance carrier, Argonaut Group’s Trident Insurance, is also investigating the cause of the collapse. The policy was purchased locally from J. Smith Lanier & Co.
The insurance claim will likely exceed $5 million.
The board approved an emergency contract to replace the water tank during Monday’s meetings. Instead of one 6-million gallon steel tank, the Water Works is going to replace it with two 4-million gallon concrete tanks.
The tank was used to hold raw river water awaiting treatment.
“We’re operating OK,” Tant said. “But we certainly have diminished capacity to answer any other emergency situation.”
Construction on the new tanks by Precon Corp. of Newberry, Fla., is expected to begin Aug. 1. The first tank could be in use by December and the second one somtime early next year.