Fix the pumps

Thursday, October 26, 2006

More follow up - oil spills at the floodgates

In part 3 of my special report, I wrote about possible environmental degredation by the Corps during their construction of the floodgates. I mentioned the oil spills during the September 14th and 15th tests of the pumps at London Ave. and Orleans Ave., which were reported in the local papers. Here's the relevant quote from the Times-Picayune article on the 16th:
"A pipe joint began leaking during the tests on Friday [at London Avenue], spilling a few gallons of hydraulic fluid into the canal, but officials said repairs would be finished within 24 hours. On Thursday, a leak in the Orleans Canal also spilled hydraulic fluid into that canal.
'We're using environmentally friendly hydraulic oil, and you don't want it to happen. But that's why we have booms set up every time to absorb (spills), just in case,' [Corps of Engineers Hurricane Protection Office Chief Colonel Jeff] Bedey said."

Curiously, only one of these two spills appears to have been reported to Federal authorities - the one on Thursday, September 14th at Orleans Avenue.

Whenever there is an oil spill of any quantity into waters in this country (technically, the definition is any spill that makes a sheen on the water, but even tiny quantities would do that), the responsible party or a witness is supposed to call the National Response Center immediately and report it to Federal authorities, who then alert the appropriate state and local authorities. Then the responsible party is supposed to clean the spill up as quickly as possible. Considering that Col. Bedey said there was enough oil at London Avenue that booms were required, it is very odd that the spill wasn't reported.

The NRC is staffed by Coast Guard personnel around the clock every day to take spill reports. The public can query the database of spill reports at the NRC website (click "Standard Report" on the query page. If you're running a firewall program, you'll have to disable it to get to the search page. I searched for all spills in Orleans Parish and scanned through them for incidents at the canals.). The September 14th spill is shown as having been reported by MWI, the pump manufacturer, not the Corps. And the September 15th spill is not reported at all.

There are also reports of two other spills: one on September 18th at Orleans Ave. (again reported by an MWI worker, not the Corps), and one on August 8th (!) at 17th Street. Neither of these has been previously reported in the press. Here are the reports of each of the three spills reported to the NRC (I have downloaded the reports and provided them as links to the dates below):

August 8th at 17th Street

"Quantity released: 50 gallons.
Description of incident: Caller states that Army Corp of Engineers ran hydraulic pumps in 17th street canal, when a coupling on a pump came loose and discharged hydraulic oil into the canal in amount of 50 gallons."

September 14th at Orleans Ave.

"Quantity released: 200 gallons
Description of incident: During a test of pumps stationed on the Orleans Avenue drainage canal in New Orleans, hydraulic oil was discovered to have leaked from a pump on the east side of the canal."

September 18th at Orleans Ave.

"Quantity released: 25 gallons
Description of incident: During a site inpection of the temporary pump station on the Orleans Avenue canal, I noticed a sheen on the water, originating from the east side of the canal, underneath the platform of hydraulic pumps. I alerted a contractor onsite, and he disconnected the source of the oil from the suspected leak, and the slick stopped growing. The contractor consulted suspects that no more than 25 gallons of hydraulic oil (Mobil 68) entered the canal from the leak. Containment and absorbent booms had been previously placed on site, and have contained the new leak."

Note the quantity on the September 14th spill. 200 gallons is not an insiginificant amount. Check out what a mere 560 gallons of oil did to the wildlife on West Breton Island here in Louisiana on June 12, 2005:
"AP, 11:02 a.m. August 7, 2005, BRETON NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, La. –After weeks of treatment, nearly 200 young brown pelicans that survived an oil spill are back in the wild. Fourteen others, too young to release, are with a wildlife rehabilitator in Baton Rouge. Nearly 700 others died, including hundreds treated by scientists and veterinarians from throughout the country, working at MASH-like veterinary hospitals set up in Venice near the mouth of the Mississippi River. "We had to build a tent city," said Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Amerada Hess Corp., which owns the well from which the oil spilled. "It was a 24-hour-a day medical mission."

And a little more about what happened to the pelican chicks:
"Of 229 birds returned to the refuge, 36 died during the first four weeks, Harris said. Most were 5- to 6-week-old chicks when the spill hit. They swallowed oil. Toxins soaked in through their skin. Their soft, downy feathers were ruined, leaving them unprotected from the sun on the treeless barrier island."

This was quickly forgotten since Katrina struck just about three weeks later.

All of this brings up the question of how many other unreported spills have occurred at these sites. The Corps has permanently placed "New Pig" brand absorbent booms around the pumps and upstream and downstream of the gates. However, just leaving the booms there all the time is not a good move. They are basically big sponges, and at some point, those sponges get saturated. Standard practice is to remove the booms as soon as possible after the spill has been cleaned.

This gets me thinking... I believe there are two possibilities as to why the Corps is leaving the booms in place all the time:

1) They don't know they have to take them out of the water after use (extremely unlikely)
2) There are persistent leaks on the pumps that have not been repaired or cannot be repaired.

When one considers that the first reported spill occurred on August 8th, but the Corps is continuing to guard against spills over 75 days later, one must conclude that the leakage of hydraulic oil is a persistent, ongoing problem which hasn't been corrected. This is pretty surprising, considering that the joints between the hoses and the pumps are fairly standard.

Going a little bit further with this line of reasoning, could this be why the five pumps on the east side of the Orleans Ave. canal have been pulled out for the last two weeks (after previously being pulled to have their motors replaced):

Perhaps the hydraulic fittings to which the hoses attach have needed to be replaced? Here's a close up of one of the pumps under repair last weekend:

Considering that the spill on September 18th was the second in less than a week at Orleans Avenue, and also considering it happened while the pumps were not running, it is a possiblity that the pumps' hydraulic fittings are being replaced. Note that this is only speculation based on the available evidence, and the real reason for the Orleans Avenue pumps being pulled for a second time could be completely different.

In any case, it seems that - at the very least - the Corps and its contractors did not report a spill at London Avenue on September 15th, for whatever reason. This is not good.


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