Fix the pumps

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Redaction - an ugly game

[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.]

Recently, residents of the greater New Orleans area may have seen an uptick in the battle over the permanent pumping stations to be installed at the lakefront. The Corps wants to proceed with "Option 1," while everyone else and their uncle wants to proceed with "Option 2." Even the Corps itself admits that Option 2 is technically superior.

Option 1 builds lakefront pump stations while leaving the existing canal walls and Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB) pump stations where they are. Option 2 gets rid of the walls and the existing S&WB stations replacing the existing canals with deeper, concrete-lined channels. Option 2 would create a system identical in operation as exists on the east bank of Jefferson Parish and in New Orleans East, where gravity-fed, below-grade canals lead to lakefront pump stations.

This is a huge project, likely to cost over a billion dollars (despite the Corps' insistence they'll stay within their appropriated amount of $804 million). Yet the coverage of Option 1 vs. Option 2 has usually broken down to "Corps says this, locals say that, and coming up in weather..." without really looking at the details. I'm going to start with those details with this temporary revival of Fix the Pumps.

The Corps claims that Option 2 is far too expensive and time consuming. They also claim the existing gate structures at the lakefront are ramshackle and will expire sometime around 2013 (a less than inspiring thought, when one considers the more than $400 million poured into those structures so far). I suppose the Corps plans to just pack up and go home at that point if they don't get Option 1, even though the project is completely federally funded?

The public basis for their "too expensive and time consuming" claim is a Congressionally mandated report on the cost of the stations. Yes Congress had to pass a law to get the Corps to release their cost estimates for this project.

That Congressional cost report, which was severely delayed before its final release in, can be found here:

Cost Report to Congress

It would seem to be quite detailed. However, it only provides top-level cost estimates for each Option (1, 2 and 2a; 2a is Option 2 with a diversion of flow from the 17th Street canal designed to help Orleans and Jefferson Parish residents by lowering the load on the canal).

Reports like these are not creations unto themselves. They are distillations of much larger reports, and they are prepared by consultants hired by the Corps. And that is where I want to start this segment of the Option 1/Option 2 saga: with the reports. Because those are the bedrock statements that cannot be refuted or forgotten or massaged.

What really kicked this whole Option 1/Option 2 deal off was a report written by Corps consultants GEC (out of Baton Rouge) and Black and Veatch (from Kansas City) in 2006. It is something of the "bible" for everything that has been generated on this matter for the last three years, until very recently. It was the report that created the terms "Option 1" and "Option 2."

It's a huge, heavily detailed report with lots of pictures, calculations, and cost estimates. Before this year, it had not seen the public light of day.

However, on May 1, 2009 the Corps released their long-anticipated draft Individual Environmental Report #5, which dealt with the permanent pump stations. I'm sure the Corps intended IER #5 to be the only report the public saw. It said the Corps was choosing Option 1; public comments were opened for 30 days on May 4, with an end date of June 3.

While others attempted to use this period to change the Corps' mind, I saw it as a golden opportunity to extract previously unseen information. IER #5 contains an extensive list of references, most of which were previously unpublished internal Corps reports dealing with the permanent pumping stations. The 2006 Black and Veatch report was among them (IER #5 was how I learned of it). Writing the Corps on May 3rd, I asked them to upload all those reports, without redactions, to the website set up for the hurricane protection system environmental review process,

To my great surprise, they did just that within days. Every report I requested showed up on the website on May 6th. You can see all the stuff uploaded for IER#5 here:

IER#5 documents at nolaenvironmental

However, there was one wrinkle. The 2006 Black and Veatch/GEC report contained dynamite (in the Corps' view). It showed all the exact cost estimates the Corps had compiled for Options 1 and 2 back in 2006. Those costs were significantly cheaper than what the 2008 Congressional report was showing. More worrying (to the Corps) was that 2006 report even showed the math behind those estimates, allowing the public to check whether those 2006 estimates were legit. There were even backup calculations for the backup calculations!

So less than a month after the 2006 report was uploaded to the nolaenvironmental website, and just before the 30 day comment period closed for IER #5, the 2006 Black and Veatch report was quietly taken off the site and heavily redacted. All the cost information was stripped out of it and it was re-uploaded, with its guts gone. The redacted version is now on the nolaenvironmental site here.

Naturally, I had already saved the complete version, and you can find it here in all its unredacted glory:

Unredacted 2006 Permanent Pump Station engineering and cost report from Black and Veatch

Having three year old cost information out there was probably not the Corps' primary worry. I believe that the radical increase in price for the pump stations (both on the Option 1 and Option 2 sides) between 2006 and 2008 was too much to explain away with their usual handwaiving. If someone got their hands on the backup to the 2008 Congressional report, they would be able to compare and contrast to the 2006 report, and figure out exactly where the inflation came from. This would be very damaging to the Corps' insistence that only Option 1 was affordable. It might show that they had inflated the Option 2 costs when reporting to Congress, and shorted the Option 1 costs. It might even show that both Options were actually unaffordable within the current appropriation of $804 million.

When the Congressional cost report came out, I recognized it immediately as Black and Veatch's work. They've done the lion's share of the reports on the permanent pump station project, dating back to 2005. That meant they had boiled down some other, likely huge report that probably included a detailed cost breakdown similar to the 2006 report. The backup to the Congressional report was what was needed.

So multiple requests for that Black and Veatch backup report were made. Lisa Ludwig of Pump to the River (who is advocating for Options 2 and 2a) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the report. Congressional staffers also put in a request. And finally, I asked for it to be posted to

A few days ago, the Corps posted the B&V backup report to It is formally known as the "90 Day Report," because it was commissioned to support the Congressional cost report, which was due 90 days after the bill in which it was mandated became law (the Corps missed that deadline by months). It turned into a much more important report that has been worked on for nearly a year and has cost the public well over $1 million.

Here it is:
Redacted March 13, 2009 version of Black and Veatch "90 Day Report"

In a surprise to no one, it is completely gutted. In a report specifically compiled to document costs and schedules, all the cost and schedule information has been completely redacted. Three whole appendices (F, I, and J), as well as the part of the main text dealing with costs and schedules (Section 5), are gone. The Corps has offered no justification for these wholesale redactions.The report they uploaded is dated March 13, 2009. However, I have happened on a later version of the report dated June 4, 2009 (the day after IER #5 comments closed, no coincidence I'd wager). While it is still missing two of the three appendices and the parts of the main text that would talk about costs and schedules, it does include Appendix F, which deals with the tradeoff between putting in gates on the stations and repairing the walls along the canals. I'll detail that later.

That June 4, 2009 version, with Appendix F intact, can be found here:

Redacted June 4, 2009 version of Black and Veatch "90 Day Report"

The Corps' posting the March 13, 2009 version of this report (which even redacted runs over 300 pages) brings up another serious question. The IER #5, issued on May 1, 2009, makes no reference to the Black and Veatch 90 Day Report supposedly finished two months earlier, even though the B&V report was the most comprehensive report to date on the entire project. Thus, the Black and Veatch 90 Day Report never came out during the public comment period for IER #5. Thus, the public did not have all the facts in front of them. This brings into doubt the integrity of the IER #5 process.

Because if the public did have that report when IER #5 was on the streets, they would have known that the Corps is actually considering three "flavors" of Option 1 and two "flavors" of Option 2. They would have known there are serious advantages and disadvantages to each, and cost repercussions on each decision. They would have figured out that the Corps likely moved some costs from Option 1 over to Option 2, skewing the figures given to Congress.

In short, for the last six months, the Corps has been witholding vital information, and in some cases deliberately excising it from the public square, during the fight over Option 1 and Option 2. In an Administration that is supposedly priding itself on openness and transparency, someone needs to tell the White House that the Corps is subverting those values as much as possible in an effort to advance an agenda not supported by anyone but themselves.

The Corps must release the complete, unredacted, and most finalest final version of the Black and Veatch 90 Day Report, and they need to do it forthwith. Congress is debating this very topic in conference right now as part of the Energy and Water Resources Appropriation bill, and they need to have all the information. Also, the public deserves it.


  • Thank you Matt for your vigilance. Garet Graves should find a way to reward you for the brilliant community service you've provided us when no one else would.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 30, 2009 9:17 PM  

  • I am so glad you are back! I really appreciate the analysis of the Corps' work. I am not qualified to understand this stuff without help, and your help is invaluable!

    By Anonymous Jane P., at October 01, 2009 10:08 AM  

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