Fix the pumps

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The fix was in

[Note to folks coming here: make sure you click on "Fix the pumps" at the top of the page to see all the most recent entries. If you can't click it, you're seeing everything.]

[Correction appended 10/1/09. See end of post]

So, we know the Corps is playing games with their taxpayer-financed reports on the permanent pump stations; they've been redacting all the vital information out of them, though not really fast enough in some cases.

We also know they are trying to scare citizens into supporting Option 1.

But what about their story that they are only authorized by Congress to put in Option 1? What's behind that? A lot.

Let's go back to late 2005 and early 2006. A lot of money for the Corps' post-Katrina efforts was moving through Congress, almost completely unopposed. In the 3rd Katrina Supplemental, they received about $2 billion to get stuff repaired and back to authorized levels. It was part of a much bigger Iraq War supplemental appropriations bill, P.L. 109-148 (H.R. 2863 in the 109th Congress).

Then came the next Iraq war supplemental in the spring of 2006. And with that bill there were more post-Katrina expenses meant to strengthen the levee system around New Orleans. On February 16, 2006, the White House submitted their funding request for an additional $19.8 billion in hurricane reconstruction funds. You can find that request here:

February 16, 2006 White House post-Katrina supplemental appropriation request

Included in there was language, drafted by the Corps, which survived all the way to the final bill signing in June, 2006 (see page 69):
"$530,000,000 shall be used to modify the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue and London Avenue drainage canals, and install pumps and closure structures at or near the lakefront;"

That final bill was P.L. 109-234 (H.R. 4939 in the 109th Congress), and would be known informally as the "4th Katrina Supplemental."

While there's been a lot of attention to the language of that provision, no one has really studied where the number came from or what it represented. Now we know.

Take a look at page 329 of the unredacted 2006 Black & Veatch report:

This information is also on Adobe pages 175 and 176 of the main report, which is subsection 6.1.2.

There's the $530 million, listed as the "Option 1" cost in something called the Post Change Authorization. That particular phrasing is a slight typo by the consultants. It should read "Post Authorization Change."

The Corps uses Post-Authorization Changes (PAC's) to bypass part of the normal two-stage authorization and appropriation process in Congress. Basically (feel free to correct me) by compiling a Post-Authorization Change report for an existing project (like the New Orleans levees after Katrina), they can skip authorization and go straight to appropriations. This is likely what happened with all the post-Katrina appropriations, due to the urgency.

What is notable is what is at the bottom of that page. It is an estimate, also from the same "Post Change Authorization" for Option 2! And at the time when that PAC information was being pulled together (somewhere between November, 2005 and when the White House sent the funding request to Congress in mid-February), the Corps believed that Option 2 would only cost $720 million.

Let me make this clear: at a time when one party controlled the White House and Congress, and at a time when there was no doubt the bill this was attached to (a massive Iraq supplemental) would pass, and at a time when goodwill toward fixing flood defenses around New Orleans was at an historic high, the Corps CHOSE to ask for the cheaper, less effective, less complete option for the outfall canals. A better option (Option 2), according to their own back-of-the-envelope estimates (note how rounded the numbers are, as opposed the very precise Black and Veatch/GEC numbers), would have only cost another $190 million in a bill that ended up costing - if memory serves - around $100 billion. They could have crafted the language around Option 2 and asked for the $720 million, and almost certainly gotten it. And if the costs went up later (as they did with the Option 1 stations), they could always ask for more money (as they did, twice, successfully), but at least the language would have been there. None of that happened.

Now, of course there is more to the story. That page also shows what Black and Veatch and GEC came up with for Options 1 and 2. The Corps probably let out a big sigh of relief when B and V/GEC came back with their estimate showing Option 1 as cheaper than what Congress had given them (at the Corps' behest, of course). But it's the Option 2 estimate that undoubtedly cast the decision to proceed with Option 1 in stone.

That B and V/GEC Option 2 estimate came in at double what the Corps had initialy projected (and what they could have asked for, if they wanted to). At that point, I believe the Corps decided there was no chance Option 2 would ever come to pass.

There's two questions that natually arise:

1) When the Corps passed along the funding request for the 4th Katrina supplemental to Congress, did they tell Congress that the $530 million was for Option 1, and that for an additional $190 million Congress could authorize and appropriate funds for Option 2?

2) When did the Corps get the B and V/GEC estimate of $1.4 billion for Option 2? If they got it during the negotiations over the 4th supplemental (between February and June, 2006), did they fully inform Congress that there was an option - albeit more expensive - that would fully protect New Orleans better than what they initially proposed?

With regards to (2), I believe it is likely the Corps received preliminary versions of those Black and Veatch estimates at some point during the 4th Katrina Supplemental negotiations. While the final date on the report is July 31, 2006 (over a month after the bill was signed), it would be standard practice that the Corps would be receiving draft versions and informal updates as information was compiled by the consultants. And if the consultants had discovered that their estimate for Option 2 was double the Corps', its a certainty they would not have waited until the report's final issuance to let the Corps know.

The amount of funding for the permanent pump stations was increased twice since 2006, first to $704 million, and then to the present amount of $804 million. In between, the Corps tried to raid the permanent pump stations fund twice. The first time, they wanted to defund it to pay for West Bank projects. Congress stepped up and simply gave the Corps what they needed without any shifting of money. The second time, they successfully transferred all but $100 million from the pump stations fund to pay for the IHNC surge barrier project now under construction. That depletion was restored and augmented in the final, 6th Katrina supplemental in 2008.

As you can see, none of the extra amounts the Corps ever asked for after the 4th Katrina supplemental even approached the $1.4 billion number the Corps possessed internally for Option 2. It was always for Option 1, because that was what they CHOSE to do in the harried months after the storm. And God knows, the Corps could never, ever change their mind once they've made a decision. After all, they just do what Congress tells them.

So, to summarize:

1) The language and funding amount for the permanent pump stations initially came from the Corps, and were likely compiled in the latter part of 2005 or very early 2006.

2) That funding amount - $530 million - was the result of a CHOICE by the Corps not to proceed with Option 2. The Corps was not forced into Option 1 by Congress - a ridiculous notion since the Corps drafted the very language and set the funding level that gave birth to the permanent pump station project.

3) After the Corps received internal reports from a consultant that Option 2 would break the bank and that Option 1 would not, they proceeded merrily down the Option 1 road, undoubtedly relieved their hurredly composed estimates had at least been partially right. Later, when citizens and government officials began demanding Option 2, they would construct a narrative that they were somehow backed into a legislative box. But that "box" was of their own making at a time when they likely could have asked for the moon, the sky, and stars and gotten them. Instead they said, "I'd rather stay in the planetarium."

4) Two subsequent chances to remedy the permanent pump station situation over the next two years - the 5th and 6th Katrina supplementals, which included billions more in dollars for the Corps' post-Katrina activities - were allowed to pass without action by the Corps. They had cemented the Option 1 decision, and would not budge.

This certainly puts a different spin on all the lip service that has been paid to Option 2 over the past three years. The Corps conducted a bunch of public meetings, a partnering process, produced two Congressionally mandated reports, all indicating that Option 2 was on the table. The fact was they had decided in late 2005 or early 2006 that Option 2 would never happen (unless someone had gotten the courage to go to Congress for extra funding, which never happened), and everything since then has pretty much been window dressing.

Is it any wonder they attempted to redact all the numbers out of this report after they posted it? But apparently that's how the government works for its citizens - by playing them for chumps. Fortunately, there are people actually affected by these decisions that will not take them laying down.

[Correction, 10/1/09 appended after publication: The numbers that form the basis of this particular post, which are top-level cost numbers, actually remain in the redacted version of the 2006 on Adobe pages 175 and 176:
Redacted version of 2006 Black and Veatch/GEC permanent pump station report
Of course, they are gone from the redacted Appendix H. The redactions leave the reader in the dark as to what is included in those numbers. For example, with the redactions, one does not know there are millions of dollars of work on bridges over the canals included in the 2006 estimates. One also does not know the amounts included for contingencies and such. The redactions take the heart out of the report.
It is also noteworthy that even the equivalent top-level cost numbers have been excised from the main text of the Black and Veatch 2009 report, where there is absolutely no justification for doing so.]

Corps to NOLA: Drop Dead (unless we get Option 1)

[Note to folks coming here: make sure you click on "Fix the pumps" at the top of the page to see all the most recent entries. If you can't click it, you're seeing everything.]

In my previous post, I introduced three of the main reports in the saga over the Corps' construction of permanent pumping stations at Lake Pontchartrain and how that will be done. The battle is between the Corps cheaper Option 1 - which effectively leave the current system in place - and Option 2 - which vastly improves the system to a design which has been around for 100 years: gravity drainage in below ground culverts with no weakened walls or tandem pumping to worry about.

I'll be referring to the as-unredacted-as-currently-available versions of those reports in my coming discussions. You can find them here:

2006 Black and Veatch permanent pump station cost and engineering report (completely unredacted)

2009 Congressionally-mandated cost report

2009 Black and Veatch permanent pump station cost and engineering report from June 4, 2009 (partially redacted)

But for the purposes of our discussion, it may be important to fall back a moment and look at the bigger battle.

Currently, the U.S. Congress is reconciling the Senate and House versions of the annual Energy and Water Developement Appropriations bill. That bill has an amendment introduced by both Senators Vitter and Landrieu which would effectively force the Corps into Option 2, something the Corps doesn't want. Their concerns are chiefly with cost. I say that, since they are mandated by Congress to provide 100 year protection to the New Orleans area, so any threats about losing that level of protection are just that - threats. Thus, their main objection can only be about costs.

I believe they are very concerned about money. In fact, I believe it is the driving concern behind their opposition to Option 2. They have already gutted the $540 million fund for armoring levees in order to pay for the massive Industrial Canal closure project (and they're also slow-walking any actual work on armoring as well), which is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget now:
"During a media tour of the storm surge barrier under construction at Lake Borgne, corps officials said they had asked Congress to allow them to use $540 million in funds slated for other projects to finish the INHC work by 2011.

"The $540 million would be taken from a pot of money set aside for 'armoring' the flood protection system, [U.S. Corps of Engineers Task Force Hope civilian leader Karen] Durham-Aguilera said. Armoring is a term used to describe a host of ways the corps strengthens levees and floodwalls, usually by adding concrete pads on the ground in the front and back of structures to guard against water erosion.

"In all, Congress gave the corps $14.3 billion to build a better flood protection system for the New Orleans region. The price of the work has been rising, but the corps insists it can finish what it needs to do by 2011 with the money Congress gave it."

They have also said they don't know whether they will have enough money to pay for $1 billion in required mitigation measures after all their hurricane protection work is done:
"They hope they'll have enough money in the $14.7 billion that has been appropriated for levee and drainage improvements to cover mitigation, but they won't know until closer to the end of the construction program, said Col. Al Lee, commander of the New Orleans District office.

'We're going to do everything we can to insure there is adequate funding,' [Corps of Engineers New Orleans District Commander Colonel Al] Lee said. 'If we get to the point where we need additional funding, we'll ask for additional funding.'"

That's two huge pots of money totalling $1.5 billion that are apparently dwindling as we speak. Without an additional appropriation, the more expensive Option 2 might force them back to Congress, hat in hand. Why this is a problem, I'm not sure, since they did so three times since Katrina as costs skyrocketed, but whatever.

Anyway, with this bill pending in Congress, the Corps is using tried and true scare tactics to attempt to influence and intimidate the public and other government officials. They may be prohibited from "lobbying" Congress, but they're apparently not prohibited from doing the same to the public.

We've already seen how they've either held back or redacted after-the-fact any cost information about the permanent pump stations except what they believe was mandated by Congress, which is a few lines in a fairly thin report. That's an attempt to control the debate by controlling the data. They are also issuing scary press releases and using the press to get their message out.

Their main tack is that the current system will expire, or blow up, or fall apart or something in 2013 or 2014 if nothing is done RIGHT NOW (i.e. have the state agree to Option 1). Their implication is that they will allow that to happen, even though they control 100% of the funds for both a) construction of new permanent stations and b) operation and maintenance of the existing interim stations.

Over the past few weeks, here's a sample of the Corps' press activity relating to the permanent pump stations, all with appropriately bland titles to mask the intimidation:

They kicked off the latest Ominous Warnings in their August 14, 2009 Task Force Hope Newsletter:

August 14, 2009 TFH newsletter:
"The three Outfall Canals at 17th Street, Orleans Ave. and London Ave. are outfitted with interim pumps and closure structures that were installed before Hurricane Season 2006. These interim structures provide 100-year level protection while the Permanent Canal Closure structures are being designed. Construction completion on the permanent structures is planned for 2013.

"To provide the permanent replacements of these temporary facilities, the Army and the State must sign a PPA by late August 2009. Any delay in signing the PPA could delay this project past its scheduled construction completion milestone of December 2013, putting the public at extended risk."

First, note the bit of historical revisionism in the first paragraph. The pumps and closure structures were NOT installed before Hurricane Season 2006. In fact, none of them were ready by June 1, 2006, and some were never really ready for the entire season, with pumps and structural pieces being pulled and added the entire time.

But more relevant to this discussion is the snide threat at the end: "Any delay in signing the PPA could delay this project past its scheduled construction completion milestone of December 2013, putting the public at extended risk."

The campaign continues with a pair of press releases this month:
"Corps provides update on permanent pumps" September 17, 2009
"The Corps continues to remind the community that the interim structures were not designed for long term operation. The temporary pumps and closure structures at the three outfall canals have a limited service life, or until 2011 - 2013.
"During the presentation, Bradley showed how the permanent pump stations can accommodate other options. 'We know how to engineer the project and build it for adaptability,' explained [Corps engineer Dan] Bradley, as he explained the potential construction project. 'But even if we started today, it will take until about 2014 to complete the work, pushing the temporary pump service life to the limit. That’s risky business to the surrounding community.'
"Without a [Project Partnership Agreement] between the state and Corps of Engineers, no project can move forward. To date, none has been signed for permanent pumps. 'The clock is ticking,' said Bradley."

Once again, apparently the Corps is going to let New Orleans drown if they don't get their way.

We'll come back to that adaptability stuff later, because it's not as simple as they make it sound, and it's also key to understanding how costs have been moved from Option 1 to Option 2, making Option 1 look better and Option 2 look worse.

But, moving on...
Five days later they reissued the same press release, but this time they attached the PowerPoint presentation:

"Corps provides update on permanent pumps" (presentation included) September 22, 2009

They've also been using the press to whip up citizens. On September 21, 2009 they got this story on to WWL's broadcast:

"Corps still at odds with state and city officials" September 21, 2009

which includes a new tack: "we're going to ruin locals' lives for ten years"

From the story:
"Plus, the Corps is now warning residents along the canals that the more than $3 billion worth of work needed would have a big impact on their neighborhoods. 'You can expect to have about ten years of heavy construction occurring in your backyard while we excavate those canals and drive thousands of pilings,' [Corps manager Mike] Park said."

Fortunately, City Councilwoman Shelley Midura calls them on their BS:
"'That could be possible, but does it mean that you settle for the quick and easy and cheap solution?' said New Orleans City Councilmember Shelley Midura, the representative for many of the neighborhoods that would be affected by both the construction and potential flooding.

"Midura said it's a choice residents along the canals should get to weigh in on before the state signs off on any work by the Corps.

"'I think those are ways to try and intimidate the political leadership from advocating for the best for the people,' Midura said."

I'm sure there will be more like that.

It's all smoke and mirrors. Between the redactions of vital material from reports paid for by taxpayers, the scare tactics, and the just plain ridiculous nature of their arguments, it makes you wonder how much time and treasure the Corps New Orleans District are expending on telling citizens how they can't do something, rather than find the path forward on how to actually do it. It is likely many millions of dollars.

They need to stop wasting money and time and get to writing language for Congress to adopt in order to give them the inevitable cash infusion they will need. Otherwise, the New Orleans area will have:

1) A dangerous, crappy pumping system

2) Little or no armoring of levees

3) Little or no mitigation of all the hurricane protection work


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Redaction - an ugly game

[Note to folks coming here: make sure you click on "Fix the pumps" at the top of the page to see all the most recent entries. If you can't click it, you're seeing everything.]

Recently, residents of the greater New Orleans area may have seen an uptick in the battle over the permanent pumping stations to be installed at the lakefront. The Corps wants to proceed with "Option 1," while everyone else and their uncle wants to proceed with "Option 2." Even the Corps itself admits that Option 2 is technically superior.

Option 1 builds lakefront pump stations while leaving the existing canal walls and Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB) pump stations where they are. Option 2 gets rid of the walls and the existing S&WB stations replacing the existing canals with deeper, concrete-lined channels. Option 2 would create a system identical in operation as exists on the east bank of Jefferson Parish and in New Orleans East, where gravity-fed, below-grade canals lead to lakefront pump stations.

This is a huge project, likely to cost over a billion dollars (despite the Corps' insistence they'll stay within their appropriated amount of $804 million). Yet the coverage of Option 1 vs. Option 2 has usually broken down to "Corps says this, locals say that, and coming up in weather..." without really looking at the details. I'm going to start with those details with this temporary revival of Fix the Pumps.

The Corps claims that Option 2 is far too expensive and time consuming. They also claim the existing gate structures at the lakefront are ramshackle and will expire sometime around 2013 (a less than inspiring thought, when one considers the more than $400 million poured into those structures so far). I suppose the Corps plans to just pack up and go home at that point if they don't get Option 1, even though the project is completely federally funded?

The public basis for their "too expensive and time consuming" claim is a Congressionally mandated report on the cost of the stations. Yes Congress had to pass a law to get the Corps to release their cost estimates for this project.

That Congressional cost report, which was severely delayed before its final release in, can be found here:

Cost Report to Congress

It would seem to be quite detailed. However, it only provides top-level cost estimates for each Option (1, 2 and 2a; 2a is Option 2 with a diversion of flow from the 17th Street canal designed to help Orleans and Jefferson Parish residents by lowering the load on the canal).

Reports like these are not creations unto themselves. They are distillations of much larger reports, and they are prepared by consultants hired by the Corps. And that is where I want to start this segment of the Option 1/Option 2 saga: with the reports. Because those are the bedrock statements that cannot be refuted or forgotten or massaged.

What really kicked this whole Option 1/Option 2 deal off was a report written by Corps consultants GEC (out of Baton Rouge) and Black and Veatch (from Kansas City) in 2006. It is something of the "bible" for everything that has been generated on this matter for the last three years, until very recently. It was the report that created the terms "Option 1" and "Option 2."

It's a huge, heavily detailed report with lots of pictures, calculations, and cost estimates. Before this year, it had not seen the public light of day.

However, on May 1, 2009 the Corps released their long-anticipated draft Individual Environmental Report #5, which dealt with the permanent pump stations. I'm sure the Corps intended IER #5 to be the only report the public saw. It said the Corps was choosing Option 1; public comments were opened for 30 days on May 4, with an end date of June 3.

While others attempted to use this period to change the Corps' mind, I saw it as a golden opportunity to extract previously unseen information. IER #5 contains an extensive list of references, most of which were previously unpublished internal Corps reports dealing with the permanent pumping stations. The 2006 Black and Veatch report was among them (IER #5 was how I learned of it). Writing the Corps on May 3rd, I asked them to upload all those reports, without redactions, to the website set up for the hurricane protection system environmental review process,

To my great surprise, they did just that within days. Every report I requested showed up on the website on May 6th. You can see all the stuff uploaded for IER#5 here:

IER#5 documents at nolaenvironmental

However, there was one wrinkle. The 2006 Black and Veatch/GEC report contained dynamite (in the Corps' view). It showed all the exact cost estimates the Corps had compiled for Options 1 and 2 back in 2006. Those costs were significantly cheaper than what the 2008 Congressional report was showing. More worrying (to the Corps) was that 2006 report even showed the math behind those estimates, allowing the public to check whether those 2006 estimates were legit. There were even backup calculations for the backup calculations!

So less than a month after the 2006 report was uploaded to the nolaenvironmental website, and just before the 30 day comment period closed for IER #5, the 2006 Black and Veatch report was quietly taken off the site and heavily redacted. All the cost information was stripped out of it and it was re-uploaded, with its guts gone. The redacted version is now on the nolaenvironmental site here.

Naturally, I had already saved the complete version, and you can find it here in all its unredacted glory:

Unredacted 2006 Permanent Pump Station engineering and cost report from Black and Veatch

Having three year old cost information out there was probably not the Corps' primary worry. I believe that the radical increase in price for the pump stations (both on the Option 1 and Option 2 sides) between 2006 and 2008 was too much to explain away with their usual handwaiving. If someone got their hands on the backup to the 2008 Congressional report, they would be able to compare and contrast to the 2006 report, and figure out exactly where the inflation came from. This would be very damaging to the Corps' insistence that only Option 1 was affordable. It might show that they had inflated the Option 2 costs when reporting to Congress, and shorted the Option 1 costs. It might even show that both Options were actually unaffordable within the current appropriation of $804 million.

When the Congressional cost report came out, I recognized it immediately as Black and Veatch's work. They've done the lion's share of the reports on the permanent pump station project, dating back to 2005. That meant they had boiled down some other, likely huge report that probably included a detailed cost breakdown similar to the 2006 report. The backup to the Congressional report was what was needed.

So multiple requests for that Black and Veatch backup report were made. Lisa Ludwig of Pump to the River (who is advocating for Options 2 and 2a) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the report. Congressional staffers also put in a request. And finally, I asked for it to be posted to

A few days ago, the Corps posted the B&V backup report to It is formally known as the "90 Day Report," because it was commissioned to support the Congressional cost report, which was due 90 days after the bill in which it was mandated became law (the Corps missed that deadline by months). It turned into a much more important report that has been worked on for nearly a year and has cost the public well over $1 million.

Here it is:
Redacted March 13, 2009 version of Black and Veatch "90 Day Report"

In a surprise to no one, it is completely gutted. In a report specifically compiled to document costs and schedules, all the cost and schedule information has been completely redacted. Three whole appendices (F, I, and J), as well as the part of the main text dealing with costs and schedules (Section 5), are gone. The Corps has offered no justification for these wholesale redactions.The report they uploaded is dated March 13, 2009. However, I have happened on a later version of the report dated June 4, 2009 (the day after IER #5 comments closed, no coincidence I'd wager). While it is still missing two of the three appendices and the parts of the main text that would talk about costs and schedules, it does include Appendix F, which deals with the tradeoff between putting in gates on the stations and repairing the walls along the canals. I'll detail that later.

That June 4, 2009 version, with Appendix F intact, can be found here:

Redacted June 4, 2009 version of Black and Veatch "90 Day Report"

The Corps' posting the March 13, 2009 version of this report (which even redacted runs over 300 pages) brings up another serious question. The IER #5, issued on May 1, 2009, makes no reference to the Black and Veatch 90 Day Report supposedly finished two months earlier, even though the B&V report was the most comprehensive report to date on the entire project. Thus, the Black and Veatch 90 Day Report never came out during the public comment period for IER #5. Thus, the public did not have all the facts in front of them. This brings into doubt the integrity of the IER #5 process.

Because if the public did have that report when IER #5 was on the streets, they would have known that the Corps is actually considering three "flavors" of Option 1 and two "flavors" of Option 2. They would have known there are serious advantages and disadvantages to each, and cost repercussions on each decision. They would have figured out that the Corps likely moved some costs from Option 1 over to Option 2, skewing the figures given to Congress.

In short, for the last six months, the Corps has been witholding vital information, and in some cases deliberately excising it from the public square, during the fight over Option 1 and Option 2. In an Administration that is supposedly priding itself on openness and transparency, someone needs to tell the White House that the Corps is subverting those values as much as possible in an effort to advance an agenda not supported by anyone but themselves.

The Corps must release the complete, unredacted, and most finalest final version of the Black and Veatch 90 Day Report, and they need to do it forthwith. Congress is debating this very topic in conference right now as part of the Energy and Water Resources Appropriation bill, and they need to have all the information. Also, the public deserves it.

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