Fix the pumps

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

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



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