Fix the pumps

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Corps defense

The Corps has been playing defense on the defective pump story since it broke last Tuesday. I thought it was time to deconstruct some of their defenses.

Defense number 1 Corps says they went to the media within a week or two of Ms. Garzino handing in her memo on May 4th to let the public know about these problems. Col. Bedey used this one on the Garland Robinette "Think Tank" show on WWL radio on March 15. You can download the entire interview from WWL's podcast page here.

What really happened:
I've been following these stories very closely, and I've been archiving nearly every pertinent article. I can only assume they are referring to this article in the May 12, 2006 Times-Picayune:
Gates won't be ready by June 1

Go ahead and read that article. See if you can find anything in there about problems with the pumps' functionality. In fact, all that's mentioned are the following:

a) There were problems installing the gates at the London Avenue site. Nothing is mentioned about pump functionality there.

b) The Corps says the 17th Street site is small, and there wasn't enough time to get the MWI pumps in.

c) Regarding Orleans Avenue, which has the exact same pumps as London and 17th St., the article says the following, "The floodgate-and-pump project in the Orleans Avenue Canal was a less complex job and will be ready on June 1, Setliff said."

I don't see it. Do you?

Defense number 2 The Corps says they've open and honest about all this. Colonel Bedey also said this on WWL, and it's been put out there by other Corps officials as well. They point to the reportage of vibration problems from last August as a prime example of that openness and honesty. Incidentally, the Times-Picayune also said the same thing (with regards to their own coverage) last week during their near-complete burial of this story. Let's take a closer look at that coverage.

What really happened:

First off, there were no Corps press releases at the time of those problems. All information was reported second hand by the media or other sources.

Secondly, the vibration problems last August are not what Ms. Garzino's memo was about. Her memo and the independently authored attachments were mostly about numerous design problems with the hydraulic power units and the testing methodology itself, as well as deficiencies in contract oversight by New Orleans. The Corps is attempting to confuse the justifiably enraged public by conflating two completely different stories. They will not succeed.

Thirdly, I have found only one stray mention of any problems besides the pump unit vibrations. It is startling, but it is just a single mention in one article. Otherwise, all other reporting was strictly about vibrations. The hydraulic drive units were never mentioned before or again.

But to give proper due, let's look at that single mention:

Problems emerge on new pumps - Times-Picayune, 8-24-06:

This article is incredibly interesting, not for what it says (mostly stuff like vibration problems, we're working on it, deadlines slip, etc), but for what it tantalizingly whispers about the now infamous testing at MWI in Florida. Buried deep in the article (and oddly presented as a Corps defense for the vibrations) is this passage:
"The problem pumps were specially manufactured for the canal projects, and corps officials were unable to explain why the vibrations were not detected during tests performed in the manufacturer's lab under corps scrutiny.

"We have to find out why the pumps did what they did, but until we do further investigation, we won't know," St. Germain said.

During testing in the manufacturer's laboratory, St. Germain said, corps engineers saw problems with the drive units, but not the pumps themselves. "Because of what we saw, we had them do more drive testing and less pump testing in order to meet our schedule."

Had problems with the pumps themselves been detected, St. Germain said, the corps would have ordered further testing on that as well. St. Germain said all the pumps were tested to determine if they properly held hydraulic pressure, but only a few were performance-tested in a tank of water in the manufacturing lab that is large enough to hold a 20,000-pound pump while it runs."

Remarkably, the T-P just lets this information lie there with no follow-up, either in the article itself or in any subsequent articles since then. Read carefully what is said in those four paragraphs. It is the bare-bones outline of last weeks' story, along with a stunning bit of candidness that Jim St. Germain snuck past the T-P. But I would hardly call it the same as explaining that information to the reading public, or the extent of what was described. In fact, when read within the totality of the article, it's almost an aside.

Still, when you look at just those paragraphs, you find:
a) He actually said they saw problems with the drive units, not the pump units. It's clear from context he's referring to problems which were not vibration-related. Thanks to Ms. Garzino, we now know the scope of some of those problems.
b) He actually said that they did "less pump testing" to meet the schedule. This is a shocking admission in the press of the Corps deliberately bypassing their own specs.
c) He also said that it wasn't the common-sense - and contractual - need to load test ALL the pumps with water that would have made the Corps actually load test the pumps. He actually said they only would have load tested all the pumps if problems had somehow announced themselves on the few pumps MWI and the Corps deigned to run water through. Riddle me this: how does one know if there are problems when water is put through the pumps, unless water is put through the pumps? That's through-the-looking-glass thinking if I've ever heard it.

Of course everyone now recognizes the significance of these statements, but back then only the people making them and those inside the Corps realized what they meant. Frankly, I didn't notice it myself until I got Ms. Garzino's memo and started going back through the news coverage, anticipating that the Corps would claim, "that's old news."

As I said above, those paragraphs in that single Times-Picayune story are the only mention I can find of any drive unit problems and other difficulties besides the widely reported August vibrations (which are really not what Ms. Garzino's memo and the attachments are about, as anyone who's actually read the whole thing can plainly see). Even then, they're referred to elliptically, as if it was okay that the pumps weren't being factory tested. If that's what the Corps and the Times-Picayune want to camp out on as "we already truthfully and openly reported that," I think they need to reevaluate their standards for communicating with the public.

[Side note: yes I realize this is a long post, but hang in there...]

For comparison, check out WWL-TV's coverage of the August problems:
17th St., London Avenue pumps have to be shut down during test run, 8-21-06

The key paragraph is here:
"[Colonel] Wagenaar said the problems could be mechanical or hydraulic or it could be related to the low water level in the canal. The pumps are designed to work in water that is three to four feet deep and the water in the canal was only about a foot deep. Tests were scheduled with pumps pushed further down into the water to simulate what actual conditions would be like during a storm."

Do you see any ackowledgement by the Corps of what they already knew: there were serious problems with the drive units and pumps, all of which had been explained in detail to them by their own employees (remember, the QA reports attached to Ms. Garzino's memo were written independently by other Corps employees)? I don't. Imagine if Wagenaar had said, "We're not surprised by this, since we had seen many other problems with these systems and have attempting to address them fully. In fact, our own people have reported those problems and we've taken their concerns very seriously." Of course, for him to be able to say that without it shocking everyone, there would have had to have been a series of statements all summer along the same lines, and the Corps would never, ever be that candid, even though they're spending the people's money on the people's protection.

It's also instructive to read the other stuff that was coming out throughout the summer of '06, before the vibrations came up but after they received Ms. Garzino's memo. For example, there's a detail-laden Times-Picayune article from July 19, 2006:
Drainage forecast cut at London Ave. Canal

Read that and tell me if there's anything about pump testing in there. There's not.

Then, there's the release of the inundation maps on July 26, 2006:
The actual press release and maps are here.
Corps issues maps of rainfall's impact, T-P, 7/27/06
Corps releases new maps showing flood risks this hurricane season, WWL-TV, 7/26/06

Read those articles and the press release. Anything about the functioning of the pumps? Nope.

Those maps show what happens when the gates drop. If there was ever a time to put out the caveat, "this data is based upon full pump functionality for the length of the storm depicted on the map," that was it. Instead, as with every other time the Corps spoke with the public, the media, and Congress, the pump flow capacities are very declaritively stated as fact. The Corps had opportunity after opportunity to tell the public they had serious problems with the functionality of the pumps, and they skipped every opportunity. They were not open and honest.

You might say, "Well, that's how the media covered it, but they leave a lot of stuff out." That's true. So where else was the Corps doing their song and dance last year? There were the monthly meetings of the now-defunct Orleans Levee District (OLD) for one.

OLD archived all their meeting minutes online. Here's what was reported by the Corps to OLD on July 19, 2006:
"Mr. Fred Young, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) Project Manager for the Orleans East Basin under Task Force Guardian, reported on the status of the temporary pumps on the interim structures. All the gates can be closed, and work is continuing on the floodwall repair at the three breaches. Currently, pumping capacity is 2200 cfs at the Orleans Avenue Canal and 2800 cfs at the London Avenue Canal. The Corps is still working on bringing pumps on line at the 17th Street Canal structure.... The Corps feels it has what is needed with the 2200 and 2800 cfs capacity at the Orleans and London Avenue Canals to get through this hurricane season."

Here's the August 16, 2006 report:
"Mr. Young reported the pumping stations at the Orleans and London Avenue Canals are approximately 98 percent complete; the pumps can be run, however, some electrical and mechanical work remains."

September 20, 2006:
"Mr. Frederick Young, Project Manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers(Corps), reported work is on-going on the pumps at the control structures at the three outfall canals. There appears to be better control over the pump vibrations, and the Corps anticipates having some type of resolution of this problem relatively soon. Additionally, by June 1st, the Corps anticipates having an additional set of hydraulic pumps at the 17th Street Canal to provide 7300 cfs capacity, and increasing the capacity on the London Avenue Canal from 2800 to 4300-4800 cfs. The capacity at the Orleans Avenue Canal is already at or above what can come out of that pumping station."

You get the idea. Every time they had a chance to mention the mechanical problems, to temper expectations, to let people know that the capacities they were publishing were theoretical, they passed on it. I've highlighted the passages dealing with the Orleans Avenue canal because - even though the same problems plagued all 34 pumps and drive units across all three floodgate sites - the Corps acted like each site was different. When it comes to the pumps, they're all the same. If there's a design problem with one drive unit, there's a design problem with them all. So the fact that construction was completed at Orleans Avenue meant absolutely nothing, because the pumps were still malfunctioning elsewhere, and the Corps knew it. That means that Orleans wasn't any better than any other site, no matter how much lipstick the Corps tried to smear on the site through their public pronouncements. In fact, the east pumps at Orleans Avenue remain out of the water to this day, as they have for the last six months. That's not open and honest.

The people of this city and this country deserved to know the risks they were taking coming back here. And every time the Corps talked pumps last year, even when the capacities were woefully low, they never included the fact that even those capacities were questionable at best according to their own experts. They withheld crucial information, and as a result, thousands of people spent money, time, and moved heaven and earth to come back. Yet all the time, the Corps knew that there was a strong likelihood of non-functionality - and any engineer outside the Corps' New Orleans District will tell you that equipment as critical as these pumps has to be absolutely, unquestionably functional under all conditions - a conclusion that can only be reached by full, complete, and professionally-conducted factory testing in accordance with industry-accepted standards. Field testing under conditions very far from reality doesn't cut it. They could have gotten a lot closer to storm conditions in the factory, but they chose not to. The fact that they didn't even test most of the pump units, the fact that the drive units appeared to have deeply serious design flaws, and the fact that they continually downgraded the testing requirements until they were practically meaningless (and behind their own Contract Officer's back, no less!) was information essential to citizens' and policy-makers' decision-making processes. All that was held back simply for them to retain what tiny shred of credibility they believed they possessed.

When it comes down to it, they were playing CYA by lying to all of us.


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