Fix the pumps

Sunday, February 11, 2007

More floodgate pump news

First, this is the first of three new posts I've put up this weekend, along with an update to my Monday London Avenue post. So keep scrolling when you get to the end of this, because there's a lot more information to see.

The Times-Picayune put out a big article last Tuesday, February 6th, about the extra pumps going in at the 17th Street and London Avenue floodgates. I've been reporting on these pumps for quite a while, and much of the article contained previously reported information that's appeared here and in the paper, so I'll dispense with that and skip right to the new information.

1) The $85 million (that's a lot!) design-build contract for the construction and installation of the pump platforms, discharge pipes and other structural matters, as well as the installation of the pumps themselves, has been issued to Weston Solutions of West Chester, PA. The press release on Weston's website gives more details.

According to that press release, Weston is partnering with M.R. Pittman of Harahan, LA and Dynamic Indistries of New Iberia, LA. M.R. Pittman also won the $52.5 million contract to procure the 19 extra pumps, as I reported on January 18th about this contract. In that post, I also reported there appears to be a $15.5 million gap between the money going to Pittman and the money going to the two pump manuafacturers. Now Pittman has gotten another huge chunk of work.

However, what is really interesting about the Weston contract is who is not mentioned: Boh Brothers, the current installation contractor at 17th Street. From this press release, it would appear at first blush that they are OUT at 17th Street. Here's the exact verbiage from the press release:
"In order to perform this fast-track project, [Weston] partnered with two Louisiana-based construction contractors, M.R. Pittman Group, LLC and Dynamic Industries, Inc. LLC, who will perform construction services on the London Avenue and 17th Street Canals."

So it sure looks like the Corps is dropping Boh at 17th Street and replacing them with Dynamic.

2) Also very interesting is that the contract was issued through the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence, or AFCEE. I don't know what to make about an Army contract getting issued by the Air Force, but it would appear to be the Corps actually thinking outside the box. One wonders why they haven't done this before?

3) Engineering firms on the job will be BBG&S Engineering Consultants of Birmingham, AL (apparently very small, with no webpage) and Gresham, Smith & Partners (apparently very large, webpage here). According to the Louisiana Secretary of State's website, BBG&S just registered to do business in Louisiana on January 4, 2007. Considering that bids for this contract were due late last year, that means that the Corps accepted a bid from a company that wasn't licensed to do business in Lousiana at the time of the bid. Interesting.

Weston appears to have at least four standing contracts with the AFCEE. Also, many of their executives have spent significant time with the Corps.

4) On his way out the door, retiring top Corps civilian Dan Hitchings took a peevish final swipe at New Orleans' citizens and local governments. He thinks we should be far more thankful for the Corps' efforts, no matter how late their results are:
"The goal is to have the last of the 19 new pumps in place and fully functioning by late July or mid-August. But corps representatives say one of the lessons of the past year of delays, setbacks and underestimated challenges is not to guarantee a date of delivery.

'We've learned not to speculate on schedules and not to give optimistic schedules,' said Dan Hitchings, who was the corps' civilian director of Katrina rebuilding until he retired Friday. 'It hurts your credibility because the dates are all people remember, no matter how much you're doing to try and get there.

'So until we get the contractors' schedules, the July-August window is our best estimate for getting the increased capacity,' he said."

Poor Dan. Perhaps he thinks the Corps should get a medal of appreciation for all their hard work, no matter how few the results. Oh wait! They already got one - from themselves!

We're supposed to take time out and reflect on how much the Corps has done every time they miss a deadline? Yeah, right. What chutzpah.

5) The Corps has finally recognized that they don't have enough pumps at the floodgates, even with this extra infusion of cash:
"The higher numbers are still considerably shy of the maximum rated capacity of Sewerage & Water Board pumps before floodgates were installed: 10,500 cfs in the 17th, 3,400 cfs in the Orleans and 8,000 cfs in the London. To reach those rated capacities, which are the top under ideal conditions, the corps would have to add another 3,000 cfs or so at both the 17th Street and the London Avenue canals. At Orleans, which drains far less water, corps officials have no plans to increase its pumping capacity above 2,200 cfs.

Corps officials said they are investigating whether they can equal the maximum provided by the S&WB.

'We've been working to match what the drainage systems are designed to handle -- a 10-year rain event -- and that's where the 7,600 and 4,800 numbers came from,' Hitchings said.

'But the Sewerage & Water Board says they can pump more than that, and they're right,' he said. 'They can pump that much if it's ponded, but what is the sustained pumping capacity? That's what we're re-examining.

'That's the guidance I've just given to Col. Bedey,' Hitchings said during his last week on the job before retiring. 'We'll re-evaluate and put in as much flow as they can sustain.'

It's amazing to see how slow their minds turn. We are a year and a half out from the storm, and they are only now realizing that their pumping scheme comes up woefully short?

By the way, the number for Orleans Avenue is an error on the part of the Times-Picayune. The actual capacity of station 7, which is at the entrance of the Orleans Avenue canal, is 2690 cfs. There are two 1000 cfs pumps, a 550 cfs pump, and two 70 cfs pumps.

6) Finally, a local paper in Pennsylvania did a write-up on Weston's contract award. It mostly includes information from the Weston press release. However, it also includes this gem from a Weston spokesman about the MWI Corp. pumps that are out there right now, and which are not going anywhere:
"'The pumps that were there didn’t work all that well,' said David Campbell, spokesman for Weston Solutions."


Pumps shut down because of weak levees on London Ave canal Dec. 30

Updated February 11th. Originally posted February 5, 2007. See below.
Also updated 7/28/07. See bottom of post.

Earlier this week, after speaking with multiple extremely reliable sources, I learned the following jaw-dropping news...

During the December 30, 2006 rainstorm in New Orleans, one of the very large 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs) pumps was shut down at Drainage Pumping Station 3 on the London Avenue canal for approximately thirty minutes. This reduced the pumping capacity at the station by nearly 25%. The reason for this was that the depth in the London Avenue canal - specifically the depth at its weakest section just south of the Mirabeau Avenue bridge - was too close to the Safe Water Level of four feet. Therefore, a pump had to be turned off in Station 3 to keep the water from rising any further.

Specifically, near the end of the December 30th storm, which was in the evening, when all the pumps were running at Station 3, the level in the weakened canal section (also known as a "reach") rose to 4 feet, 4 inches (Update: this number is according to the Times-Picayunes' February 8, 2007 article). The Sewerage & Water Board then called Jim St. Germain, the Corps' pumping guy. Mr. St. Germain came out to Station 3, agreed that the Safe Water Level was equalled or exceeded, and recommended the shutdown of at least one of the station's pumps. One of the large 1000 cfs pumps was shut down (there are three 1000 cfs units in station 3) for about a half hour, and the level in the canal dropped far enough that the pump could be turned back on.

Incidentally, this marks the second time in a two week span that the 4 foot Safe Water Level in the London Avenue canal was approached or exceeded.

This is shocking. This is huge. It means that my concerns about permanent reductions in New Orleans' pumping capacity due to weakened canal levees and walls are legitimate, and that those worries have already been realized at least once already. The true rainy season in New Orleans (outside of hurricane season) doesn't start until April and lasts for over two months.

What it also means is that personnel in the Corps' New Orleans District have failed to report this information publicly, even when given the explicit opportunity to do so on at least two different occasions when they have been asked directly about the strength of the London Avenue canal walls in public forums.

1) On January 8th, 2007, Corps senior project manager Jim St. Germain and project manager Daniel Bolinger appeared before the New Orleans City Council's Public Works Committee to speak about drainage matters. Mr. St. Germain was asked by Councilperson Stacy Head about the then-recent revelations that water depth had reached 3.6 feet in the London Avenue canal during the December 21, 2006 storm. He did not mention the pumping shutdown on December 30, despite his presence in the pump station that evening. I have the entire January 8th hearing on tape.

2) On January 26th, 2007, senior members of the Corps' New Orleans District office and the Hurricane Protection Office appeared before the board of the newly constituted Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. Those individuals included Colonel Richard Wagenaar (commander of the New Orleans District) and Colonel Jeff Bedey (head of the Hurricane Protection Office). When asked directly by the board about the London Avenue canal walls, they did not mention the December 30th pumping shutdown. They said they were aware of the problem and were working on it. Their slide presentation from the meeting says only this about the London Avenue canal, "Future tests may raise elevation."

These lies of omission have gotten to be too much. Citizens of New Orleans are now suffering directly for the Corps' inaction in attending to the weak canal walls and levees. On December 30th, it was 30 minutes. How long will the pumping shutdown be the next time? How long must New Orleans be trampled by all the kings' horses and all the kings' men before enough is enough?

I contacted the Corps for comment before posting this. They didn't reply.

Update, 2/11/07
As I mentioned above, the Times-Picayune caught up with this story three days after this post appeared. Their article had some of the information I had above, along with some very bland, uninformative reassurances from Jim St. Germain:

"In addition, St. Germain said the corps already has a private contractor working to determine whether 4 feet remains an appropriate safe water level in London Avenue Canal, which runs through the 7th Ward from Gentilly to the Lakefront.

And even before the Dec. 30 event, he said, the corps was looking at ways to bolster the walls so the canal could safely hold more water, in the event the level cannot be raised above 4 feet."

How long will they look before they finally do something? This attitude is exactly what rankles people when the Corps claims they have the same urgency to act as all the citizens of this imperiled city. Frankly, we've been hearing this same claptrap about plans for the London Avenue canal for five months now. On the September 7, 2006 edition of WLAE's "Road to Recovery," Colonel Wagenaar said almost the same thing as Jim St. Germain said above.

On that evening, Col. Wagenaar talked about how the Safe Water Level on London Avenue was to drop to four feet, and that the Corps was looking at things to do to raise the level, including reinforcing the walls or lining the interior banks of the canal. I posted that information to a number of New Orleans Yahoo discussion groups the next day. You can see my post to the Gentilly_after_Katrina group here.

The loss of pumping capacity due to the Corps' inaction has been demonstrated. The time for study is now over, period. It's time to get off the pot and do something.

[Update 7/28/07]
See my June 11, 2007 post, "Testing, testing," for the most up to date information on the London Avenue canal testing. The Engineering News-Record articles linked there are far better than the Times-Picayune's pathetic coverage. [end update]

Corps paying close attention to London Ave canal

I just happened to be out at the Mirabeau Avenue bridge over the London Avenue canal on Friday afternoon. For the second time in less than two weeks, I observed Corps personnel out in boats looking at the inside of the walls along the canal south of Mirabeau.

On Friday February 9, there were three white Chevy trucks with US Government license plates and a fourth with Oklahoma plates parked at the bridge. I'm sure the Government vehicles belong to the Corps. The access gate on the west side of the canal was wide open, and a flatboat could be seen south of the bridge. The bow of the boat was pointed at the eastern wall the entire time.

On Wednesday, January 31, there were two white Government vehicles parked next to the same gate. This time there were two flatboats in the canal. One seemed to be on the shore of the eastern bank, in the same area as the boat on February 9. The other boat was left at the bridge after the gentlemen (undoubtedly Corps folks) closed the gate and left in the Government trucks.

For the locals in the audience, the area they seemed to be most concerned with is located just north of the large cell phone tower on the Dillard University campus. You can see that area on this satellite photo. From these observations, I'm guessing that it is the canal's east wall that is causing the most consternation, and which is also governing the Safe Water Level of four feet.

And the leaks go on

More pump testing at the floodgates means more oil leaks.

As I last reported in November, the Corps and its contractors (specifically the pump manuafacturer, MWI Corp.) have spilled over 700 gallons of hydraulic oil into the three outfall canals during testing or demonstrations of pumps.

The spills keep coming. On the morning of January 25th, an unnamed MWI employee called in another spill at the 17th Street canal site:

January 25, 2007
Quantity released: 20 gallons
Description of incident: The caller is reporting a release of materials into the 17th Street canal from a water pump due to equipment failure on the pipe.

This is the sixth reported spill at the 17th Street site. Overall, we know of a total of ten spills at all three floodgate sites, nine of which have been reported to the National Response Center, as required by law for any oil spill which produces a sheen on the water or sludge in the soil. A September 15, 2006 spill at the London Avenue canal floodgates, which got reported by the local media the following day, did not get reported to the National Response Center. This is an obvious breach of Federal regulations which has yet to be addressed.

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