Fix the pumps

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Copy. Paste. Repeat.

UPDATED: see bottom of post.

I've been hammering away at the original bid specifications for the outfall canal pumps quite a bit. That's because they are one of the root causes for the dilemma in which we now find ourselves. They are also a legal document, which also carries all kinds of implications.

I had admittedly been proceeding under a somewhat polyannish assumption regarding those specs, based on my own experience in writing technical specifications. I assumed that the personnel in the Corps' New Orleans District who crafted those specs did so based purely on the technical requirements for the job, and that a lot of work went in to them. I assumed they were working from a considerable base of knowledge about the specific equipment they were writing about. That's always been the case on my end, as well as for any other engineer I've ever known.

Well, that's apparently not what happened. As reported by the Associated Press, the Corps used MWI's spec to write the original bid solicitation from January, 2006. Well, that's understating it a bit. The Corps and its archtectural/engineering contractors (Linfield, Hunter & Junius and the local office of URS) copied and pasted MWI's catalog specification word for word, sent it out as a competitive bid solicitation, and then awarded the job to MWI. When he found out about it, Louisiana Senator Vitter asked the Corps what the heck was going on in this April 13, 2007 letter.

Among the revelations in the article is that the testing requirements which were downgraded by the Corps during testing in Florida (as documented in Ms. Garzino's memo and the independently authored reports attached to that memo) were actually MWI's own testing specs. They couldn't even meet their own spec!

However (and I hate to mention this) there's even more to the story.

On June 9, 2006, the Corps put out yet another bid solicitation, for 23 more hydraulic pumps (16 at 17th St, and 7 at London Ave). While there were significant changes from the January spec, the new solicitation still included large, word-for-word chunks of MWI's catalog specs. It was postponed (on June 15, 2006), and then cancelled (on June 20, 2006) before it could get to the contract award stage. At the time, the Corps said they cancelled it because one of the potential offerors (i.e. bidders) was threatening to sue. This was mentioned in a New Orleans City Council meeting on June 22, 2006, for which I have the tape. When I asked why the unnamed bidder was threatening to sue, I never got an adequate answer, just a lot of handwaiving.

Now we know why. It is because the other potential bidders were sick and tired of seeing MWI's spec in print underneath Corps letterhead for the second time in six months.

But wait! There's more...

The June spec was pursuant to the May, 2006 Revision 2 of the Corps Project Information Report (PIR), which made an unconvincing case that hydraulically driven pumps were the best idea for expanding pumping capacity at 17th Street (the PIR Rev. 2 doesn't seem to authorize expansion at London Ave, but the Corps still asked for seven pumps there. Go figure). Lineshaft pumps - in which the engines are directly connected to the pumps via a gearbox (i.e. no hydraulic fluid, no piping, etc.) - were deemed to not meet the Corps' requirements. The logic in PIR Rev. 2 boiled down to a very weak argument for why hydraulics should be used instead of lineshafts:

1) Hydraulic pumps would have a delivery time of 12-16 weeks, while lineshafts would have a delivery time of 16-20 weeks.
2) The cost per cubic foot per second was less for hydraulics than for lineshafts.

There was no detailed discussion of the technical merits of lineshafts over hydraulics (which are substantial), the long experience of major lineshaft manufacturers, or why the particular style of pump was even an issue. After all, the question on the table in May, 2006 (and all throughout 2006) was how to get more pumps out to the floodgates. Why it would matter whether the pump was driven by a direct drive or a hydraulic drive was irrelevant, and pretty anti-competitive.

In fact, the PIR Rev. 2 seems geared toward one objective: finding any argument to justify the use of hydraulic pumps. After all, "cost per cfs" - rather than just overall cost - is a strange way to measure the cost of a system which will only be running for a tiny fraction of the entire year. Who cares if it costs a little more to build and run the system? Isn't the real objective to get as much water out of the city as possible?

By the way, on that most important count - by the Corps' own admission - hydraulics wouldn't have done as good a job as lineshafts. They said they'd be able to get an extra 400 cfs from the lineshafts vs. the hydraulics (in the PIR, they proposed 12 lineshafts @ 300 cfs (3600 cfs) along the west side of 17th St, while they called for 16 hydraulics @ 200 cfs (3200 cfs) along the west side. Both plans called for two more hydraulics on the east side. Those two hydraulics were eventually installed). Yet they still proceeded with hydraulics.

As far as the other part of the Corps' argument that delivery times were four weeks faster for hydraulics, I am extremely suspect of where they got their delivery estimates. How do we know that they weren't also getting that information from MWI, and not lineshaft manufacturers? Also, why did it take so long to get the PIR Rev. 2 and solicitation out? After all, everyone knew what was needed: more pumps. And they knew it right from the moment the original solicitation went out in January. If they had put the revised PIR and second solicitation out a month earlier than they did, their argument about faster delivery times would have been moot. It just doesn't track.

What I'm saying is that the argument of hydraulic vs lineshaft seems to be a setup to make a particular company look good. It shouldn't matter what the drive arrangement was, and the bid solicitations shouldn't have made any mention of how the pumps would be driven. As long as the pumps hit the flow and head performance requirements, what else mattered? That is, why not open up the process to everyone, rather than narrowing it to a field of about three companies?

So how do we know that there was no necessity to pick a particular drive arrangement? Because the last revision of the Corps PIR that we have, Revision 4 (from October, 2006), contains no such discussion. Revision 4 is the justification for the current set of pumps now being placed at 17th St and London Avenue at a combined cost of $135 million. Those pumps are of a lineshaft design. And Revision 4 makes absolutely no mention of hydraulic vs. lineshaft. In fact, the word "hydraulic" doesn't even appear in Revision 4.

So we have the Corps New Orleans District from about November, 2005 until at least June, 2006 acting in internal documents and conversations like they are in love with hydraulic pumps (specifically MWI's pumps). But they were also receiving messages from other bidders and their own project engineers that there were serious problems with the hydraulic pumps (both on the technical side and on the contracting side) during that same time period. But they still plowed ahead. I think the message finally made it through in June (when the second solicitation was cancelled), but the reassurances to the public still kept coming, even after the disastrous testing in August, 2006 when the pumps nearly shook themselves apart.

It is that total lack of transparency that is tremendously galling. For most of 2006, long before the public was aware there were problems, the New Orleans District was totally aware of what was going on, but they never let any of us know. And even today they put out their bland reassurances. Their credibility has always been in the toilet, but at this point I'd say it's been flushed into the river.

For my readers in Florida, there's a reason this may all seem familiar:

Primed for success

According to the St. Petersburg Times, practically the same Kabuki show played out in 2001 and 2002 in Florida, with the South Florida Water Management District playing the role the Corps is now playing. Specs were apparently rigged to favor MWI, who won the jobs.

Tip of the hat to da po blog. Go there to read a little more.


  • Thanks Matt for your efforts. This gets worse and worse. I can't believe those in power in this country are so corrupt. Seems like no one in power cares about the common good, something the founders of this country were very aware of. Many of them were Dutch by the way. Being great traders (i.e.making money) and caring about the well being of one's countrymen apparently can be done without raping the country.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 02, 2007 10:38 PM  

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