News Feature | July 20, 2016

Wastewater Worker Dies After Falling Into Toxic Sludge Basin

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Federal authorities have opened a probe into a death at a wastewater facility in New Mexico.

After working for the small village of Ruidoso for three decades, John Ramos died on July 13 at the Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, according to the Associated Press. He was “manager of the plant when he retired in 2008, but returned to work two years later as the plant operator/lab technician operator,” Ruidoso News reported.

Ramos was cleaning a 22-foot deep reverse activated sludge basin, spraying water on grease and foam buildup, as part of a routine maintenance check. He lost his balance and fell in. The tank Ramos fell into was 12 feet across and holds 60,000 gallons of sewage sludge, which contained toxic chemicals.

“The safety line was thrown in but the material that is contained in there is very, very toxic,” said Kerry Gladden, a spokesperson for the village of Ruidoso, per KOB-4. “Every attempt was made to save him but unfortunately, it was unsuccessful.”

“It truly was a fluke accident. He lost his footing,” she said. “There was a safety line thrown in when he went in, but he never resurfaced. What’s in the tank is highly toxic.”

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating what happened. The plant may change its safety protocols in response to the event.

“When the (new $32 million) treatment plant was built, it was designed so there was not a need for harnesses where they were walking,” Gladden said, per Ruidoso News. “Obviously, we had engineers out there today telling us how we are going to put safety harnesses out there, because we’re never letting anybody go out there again without fall harnesses. That’s why OSHA is there.”

Mayor Tom Battin made a statement, per Ruidoso News: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic events that have taken place. John was a member of our Village family, and his death has shaken us to our core.”

Former Village Manager Frank Potter weighed in, per the Ruidoso News: “This is hard to take. He was a great friend and employee,” he said. “We lost another employee back in the 1980's at the old wastewater plant. He had a seizure and fell in the trough and drowned.”

Ruidoso News contacted village officials for confirmation of the previous death but was not able to verify it.

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.