Fix the pumps

Monday, June 21, 2010

Corps of oil, Part 2

Part 1, Part 3

In the previous part of this series, I described how there have been at least 40 oil spills at the three gate-and-pump sites on New Orleans' Lake Pontchartrain over the past four years, but the Corps has only reported 11 of those spills to the Coast Guard, as required by federal law. The federal penalties for failure to report an oil spill include imprisonment up to five years and fines up to $50,000 per day the spill went unreported. The Corps has been similarly lax reporting spills at the state level as well, and the state of Louisiana also provides penalties for failure to report spills.

Part one concentrated on the known spills at the three sites (17th Street, Orleans Avenue, and London Avenue) during the May, 2006 - May, 2007 period. All of those spills were associated with the troubled hydraulic pumps installed at those sites, and most of them were spills coming directly out of the pumps themselves.

In that opening part, I also gave a quick functional description of how the hydraulic pumps at the gates work. In this part, I'll cover the operation of those pumps - and the spills resulting from that operation - during the summer of 2007.

KPCC reporter Molly Peterson received Corps of Engineers pump records (available here or here) for the summer of 2007 in response to a FOIA request for data of testing done to prove the pumps' functionality near the end of the contract. Those records form the nucleus of this post. Prior to summer 2007, the pumps had been involved in near constant testing, repairs, overhauls, and analysis. By the time the the summer began, they had been subject to three internal inquiries by the Corps and were under investigation by the General Accounting Office in the first of two inquiries. Among the millions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of man-hours of changes needed between May 2006 and May 2007 to get the pumps to approximate basic operability were:

- replacement of undersized Rineer motors with more robust models, a change meant to diminish damaging vibrations
- addition of cones to the bottoms of the London and Orleans Avenue pumps, intended to reduce vortex formation
- numerous repairs of faulty welds on the pump housings
- more parts replacements on the Denison hydraulic pumps than can be counted
- flipping the ends of the nine foot pipes to help the pumps get primed on startup
- addition of hydraulic pipe extensions to raise hose connections out of splash zone (unfortunately, the pipe extensions themselves, along with nearly everything else on and in the pumps, were just as prone to corrosion, necessitating millions of dollars of out-of-warranty overhauls since 2009 and which are still underway. See posts here, here, here, and here.)
- two complete flushings of the thousands of feet of hydraulic piping
- changes to the reservoirs on the drive skids to eliminate air from entering Denisons, detailed in the previous post

That's just the big stuff. There was an endless series of little fixes along the way as well. So after all that it was time to try to close out the contract by attempting to officially determine if the pumps met the contract, also known as "acceptance" testing. It's rather remarkable that the official acceptance testing took place over a year after the contract had been intended to finish in June, 2006, and also after a year of the Corps reassuring the public that they were satisfied with the pumps.

As best as can be gleaned from the records, the only acceptance requirement was a two hour run of each pump without breaking down. It appears many of the units had difficulty doing even that, as there was constant scurrying by MWI and other contractors to fix stuff during those three months. Nothing much had changed from the previous year.

Of course, part and parcel of operating the hydraulic pumps was - and is - leakage of hydraulic oil into the canals. And while the acceptance test records are not as detailed as the other set of testing records (likely because of stuff getting held back by the Corps, not because detailed records don't exist), there's enough evidence to indicate there were spills during the acceptance testing.

I've accounted for at least three separate oil spill incidents in these records. There were likely others. None of the ones I found were reported to the National Response Center or the state of Louisiana. See the previous post for details on reporting oil spills, including penalties for not doing so.

July 5, 2007 at Orleans Avenue
"While raising the gate [Corps of Engineers Resident Engineer] Randy Persica notice[d] a leak on gate three hydraulic lines"

Unlike most of the rest of the spills, this one took place on the hydraulic system for raising and lowering the gates. At London Avenue, the entire hydraulic gate control system is mounted over the water. I'd guess that 10 gallons spilled in this incident.

July 31, 2007 to August 16, 2007 at Orleans Avenue
From a July 31, 2007 email by Randy Persica to other Corps personnel and contractors:
"[MWI mechanic] Claudio [Grecco] filled and ran pump 2E [at Orleans Avenue] for less than 10 min and is convinced it has an internal oil leak in the pump"

It is likely pump 2E was pulled out the water sometime between July 31, 2007 and the next relevant report on August 16, 2007:
"MWI and QFM [St. Rose, LA rental and mechanic shop Quality Fab & Mechanical, who provided mechanics on site to work on the pumps for 2006 and most of 2007] working on [Orleans Avenue] unit 2-E, testing to see where the oil is leaking from. They pressure up the pump as seen that there is between the top-hat and the motor an one of the o-ring on the high pressure line is also leaking."

The August 16 report may or may not be describing testing of a pump while up on the deck out of the canal. Nonetheless, it resulted from an oil leak in the pump discovered when the pump was in the canal.

I'd guess 50 gallons was spilled in this incident between the actual oil leak and the oil spilled when the pump was pulled out.

Also, I realize the text of this report is difficult to read. Many of the reports from this period - written by Corps inspectors - read just like this.

August 17, 2007 at Orleans Avenue
This report is also a little hard to understand:
"a. [Orleans Avenue lead construction contractor] Kiewit sub contractor pressure washing the paint [off] the 109-inch pipe as directed. And mob[ilize] B&G 360 Liebheer crane to pull pumps at Orleans Canal unit 5-E and 2-W for mechanical seal leak.

b. MWI and QFM loaded 6 tote of bad oil to send to [Pascagoula, MS hydraulic piping and flushing contractor] Tube-Mac to be run threw [sic] a filter system to remove all water and trash. Pressure unit 2-E with 20 PSI to check for oil leaks, found that gasket between the top-Hat and the Rineer motor was bad, so the welder installed a lifting eye in the pipe to pull the Rineer motor and change the gasket.

c. Ope's [Corps Operations] pulled the bolts on the 60-inch flange on unit 2-W and 5-E for the [removal] of the pumps. Ope's lower[ed] the gates so they could lower the water in the Canal on the protected side to work on the oil leaks."

August 17th appears to be a particularly leaky day, with leaks reported on at least three of the pumps at the Orleans Avenue site: the previously leaking E2 and the newly leaking E5 and W2, which were assumedly later pulled out by a 360 ton crane (owned by New Orleans crane firm B&G) mobilized that day. I am combining the leaks from pumps W2 and E5, on opposite sides of the canal, into a single leak for which I'm guessing 100 gallons was spilled.

The note about sending oil offsite to be filtered is of interest too. How could water and "trash" be in the oil? Pump leaks at the canal are one possible likely source. If water was getting into the oil in the pipes, then oil was getting in the water in the canal. Also, "trash" in oil could not have been good for the Denisons and their sensitive insides.

Also interesting is the mention of pressure washing paint off the 109-inch lines. This activity shows up in a number of the Corps' reports from this period. The "109-inch" lines are the 9-foot diameter lines that jut through the structure, conveying water from the pumps to the lake:

Over a year after this report, when the Corps undertook their hydraulic pipe painting project, they needed permission from the state to discharge debris from cleaning the pipes into the canal. Actually, they didn't so much apply for permission as get ordered by the state to do the painting cleanly. Certainly, if they didn't have permission to discharge hydroblasting and painting debris in 2008, they definitely didn't have it in 2007 during the pump acceptance testing. So that's another suspicious discharge into the canals.

A few days after the leaks mentioned in the August 16 and 17 reports there was this little note:
"Checked oil in tanks at Orleans Avenue. All still full."
- from August 26, 2007 report.

From this, we can assume they repaired the leaks in the canal pumps, and were monitoring the oil levels to see if anything had seeped out.

That's about where the records on Orleans Avenue end. As I said, they are sketchy. The records for acceptance testing at London Avenue and 17th Street have even less detail, but it still seems clear there were at least three hydraulic oil leaks at the gate structures throughout the summer, and possibly many more. There also appears to have been repeated pressure washing of coal tar epoxy paint from the main 9 foot pipes into the canal, possibly without state permission. But there are no reports to NRC or LDEQ of any such discharges at any of the three sites for the entire months of June, July, August, or September in 2007. It's like these folks were operating in a regulation-free zone the whole summer.

The next part of this series will describe the period from October, 2007 to the present.

Molly Peterson contributed to this report.



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