Fix the pumps

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Boom goes the oil

[Updated 8/20/10]

In the previous post, you may have noticed an odd thing about the look of the 17th Street site. The Corps is apparently changing their booming strategy to combat hydraulic oil leaks from the rusting pumps:

On the west side, the solid and absobent boom came completely untethered. They are supposed to be anchored around the hydraulic pumps, like this:

Were that the only problem, it would be serious, but not quite earth-shattering. However, that is not the only problem.

Rewinding a bit, we know that the hydraulic pumps leak oil. They are turning into rust as we speak, and mechanically they are not exactly robust. In addition to carbon steel piping on their insides and their outsides, which is subject to deep corrosion in Lake Pontchartrain's brackish waters, they also have failing seals, glands, motors, and bearings. There's hydraulic oil inside all those components, and the Corps' preventative maintenance program over the last three years has been non-existent, meaning oil leaks are always imminent.

For all those reasons - and years of experience of at least 40 oil leaks across all three sites - the Corps has two tiers of absorbent and solid boom installed at each gate structure. The closest-in bunch of booming is installed right at the pump platforms (shown above), while the outer tier is on either side of the gate structure. Here are the outer booms at 17th Street:

Note that these outer booms are the only protection against spread of a leak from the 42" bridge pumps mounted below the deck at 17th Street. There are no close-in booms installed around those pumps.

Regarding the Google satellite shot, we can date them fairly specifically, because they memorialize this spring's pump repairs. Take a look:

Pumps E1 and E2 were out of the 17th Street site some time between March 16, 2010 and April 15, 2010. The satellite photos also caught the repairs over at London Avenue during the same period:

That's pumps E4 and E4 out. All four of these pumps were repaired under task order #2 of the new Healtheon repair contract. I reported on these repairs in my post "This year's scramble."

Back to the booms... They are maintained under a contract with QRI of Baton Rouge, the same contract that calls for QRI to respond to oil spills. Due to redactions in my FOIA request for the contract, we don't know how much the Corps pays for that maintenance, but I guarantee it is a lot.

The booms are also mentioned in the Corps' Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) Plans for each site. These plans - as well as the spill countermeasures described therein - are mandated by federal law. The three plans are pretty much identical to each other, since there's more similarities among the sites than differences. There's three mentions of the containment in the 17th Street SPCC plan:

Page 17:
"Oil containment booms are used to surround the pump platforms and across the outfall of the drainage canal. This boom should be rotated on a regular basis during the monthly inspections (to ensure maximum containment potential). Rotation or replacement of the boom is the responsibility of Canal Captain or their designee."

Page 18:
"The pump hydraulic hoses are not contained and are above water and containment by 'oil boom' is needed. This boom should be rotated on a regular basis during the monthly inspection (to ensure maximum containment potential). Rotation or replacement of the boom is the responsibility of the Canal Captain or their designee."

The 17th Street Canal Captain is Ray Newman.

Page 19:
"Hydraulic Pump Platform Piping. Three-inch diameter pipes (hoses) transport hydraulic oil to the pumps. It is estimated that the maximum flow volume that may be released due to rupture of one of these pipes is about 50 gallons. More likely is leakage from the quick disconnect connection to the hydraulic motors (5 to 10 gallons). Calculations are based on this scenario. These are located over water and oil discharge will need to be contained. Currently, there is an oil boom surrounding the structure. This should remain in place to capture any leakage. The hydraulic piping (hoses) to the pumps could be changed out to stainless steel pipe to reduce the likelihood of rupture. All piping in this area has been pressure tested to 4,500 psi."

It's interesting that the mention of switching out the carbon steel piping for stainless - currently underway at a dangerously glacial pace - even shows up in the SPCC plan. That plan was prepared years ago, long before the current round of repairs. The Corps has long known the right thing to do - they just haven't done it.

So we've established where the booms are supposed to be placed, and that the Corps has assured the federal and Louisiana state governments that the boom will be in place to contain oil spilled during routine operations, like during nice weather or maintenance.

In my last post, I mentioned a report WWL-TV did August 10, 2010 on the future permanent pump stations. Part of that piece had reporter Katie Moore and a camera crew traveling to the 17th Street site to do a brief walk-and-talk on the deck of the structure, as well as capturing a bunch of b-roll around the site.

Some of that b-roll shows the boom apparently in place on the 10th. Here's the boom downstream of the structure, near the outlet of the canal:

Here's a peek of the boom upstream of the structure near the Hammond Highway bridge, apparently installed:

And here's the absorbent and solid boom around the east hydraulic pumps:

The next day, the 11th, the remnants of Tropical Depression #5 started rolling through New Orleans. Peak water levels in Lake Pontchartrain at 17th Street went from about 1 ft to about 2 feet at their worst, around 9 PM on the 12th. The maximum gusts went up to about 20 mph. It was as weak as tropical disturbances get.

So let's go back to that picture Steve Beatty took on the 13th, which shows the boom that's supposed to be surrounding the west hydraulic pumps was instead floating free in the canal:

It seems a good bet this was a result of the TD#5 remnants. It would have been nice for the boom to stay in place, but I guess I can understand it getting dislodged by a storm, even though the storm was a minuscule one.

And as I said, if that had been the only section of boom removed, and if it had been put back immediately after the storm, it wouldn't have been that big a deal.

However, the story is much worse. Steve Beatty made a return trip to the 17th Street site on August 14, two days after TD#5 was over. Here's the conditions of the boom all over the site:

Worst of all, the downstream boom, which is the final boom that prevents oil leaks from escaping out into the lake looked like this:

I suppose the Corps' excuse in this case - despite knowing that oil leaks can happen any time from their rusty pumps - would be, "It's not like anyone could knock an oil hose free."

Yeah, that kind of makes sense...


That's a contractor in a metal basket hanging over the water during preparations to reinstall bridge pump #7 August 14th. I'm certain that a crane swinging an aerial lift couldn't possibly knock oil hoses free.

Now there's all kinds of things wrong with what's going on in this photo, which I'll cover in my next post. But for the purposes of this post though, the point is that the Corps let all the oil containment booms at the 17th Street site come loose, didn't do anything about it for at least two days, and had contractors doing work on the pumps during that time that could easily cause a leak. Heck, if the plan was test run pump #7 by the end of the day on the 14th, it's a strong possibility some oil would leak during startup. Yet the work proceeded on the 13th and the 14th without any spill protection in place.

Not good. And it gets worse in the next post.

Update, 8/20/10

At some point between the 14th and the 20th, the Corps had their contractor put the booms back:

Steve Beatty contributed to this report



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