Fix the pumps

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How much is left in the till?

With this statement from project manager Dan Bradley at the October 15, 2009 Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East meeting:
"Last year the maintenance cost [for the existing interim closure structures and pumps] was approximately $5 million. The cost of maintenance could increase each year and these costs are coming out of the project funds."

along with the knowledge that millions of additional dollars dollars have been spent on engineering over the past few years (those Black & Veatch reports don't come free, you know), a question has to be asked.

How much of the $802 million appropriated to the permanent pump project is left? Because it's not just maintenance and engineering that has caused the total to drop. Those amounts are possibly peanuts.

According to publicly available contract data, the Corps spent just over $400 million in building the interim closure structures. According to the January 2006 Project Information Report, which laid out the original scheme for the interim closure structures, the Corps originally budgeted around $141 million for the three structures and the original order of 34 hydraulic pumps (including 30% contingency on the construction constracts and then an additional 10% Engineering & Design, and 10% Supervision and Administration on top of all four). Here's the cost estimates from the January 2006 PIR:

Assuming the $141 million came out of the pots for immediate post-Katrina repairs (found in the 3rd Katrina Supplemental), which is a large assumption, where did the other $259 million come from? Somehow, the Corps had to pay for the procurement and installation of 19 direct drive pumps at 17th Street and London Avenue in 2007, along with a SCADA control system not originally budgeted.

One has to ask, did that $259 million - or more - come out of the permanent pump station project appropriation?

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Corps' invented crisis

The Corps arguments against Option 2 boil down to three contentions:

1) They are not authorized by Congress to build Option 2.

2) They haven't been given enough money to do so, according to their own estimates.

3) They don't have enough time to build Option 2 before the current interim closure structures self-destruct, or something.

Rebutting each of these:

1) Authorization: Over the past few weeks, it has emerged that the Corps is planning to do work identical to Option 2 at weak spots along the canals. They have budgeted at least $90 million for the work and plan on it lasting for years. Obviously, they are authorized to do modifications to the canals.

2) They goosed the Option 2 estimate between 2006 and 2008 by at least $1 billion more for less work on the pump stations. They also shifted a bunch of features from Option 1 to Option 2 in those estimates, to make the numbers look better for Option 1 and worse for Option 2. Their claims of expense cannot be taken at face value.

Which brings us to the "hurry up" reason, which is the most odious of their arguments.

I've detailed in the past how they've used this distortion to scare the public and their representatives. Karen Durham-Aguilera trotted it out - unsolicited no less - at the November 5, 2009 City Council meeting, paired with a rewriting of history (move the slider bar on the video to about 2:19:33):
"The thing that we're all remembering - especially from the engineers' point of view - the outfall canals, closure gates, and pump stations are temporary structures. You know, our mission was to get those in place before another hurricane season, and that is what we we did, and they were out there by June, 2006. They were never made to be long term. They are exposed in the elements. They are subject to corrosion. So our job is to get those replaced as quickly as possible. And even if we start today, it's going to be spring of 2014 before we're done because it's a very complicated construction project. So that's why we're so driven to keep moving forward, so that we're doing everything we can to not have a gap in risk reduction for the citizens of greater New Orleans."

Okay, first off, does she seriously think the entire New Orleans metro area has amnesia? We're not stupid. The gates and pumps were NOT "out there" by June, 2006. Here's the Times-Picayune on June 1, 2006, in an article titled "Pumps won't hit '06 goal this summer:"
"It won't be possible to provide the maximum promised pumping capacity at the new floodgates on the 17th Street and London Avenue canals during what are usually the most active months of hurricane season this year, and perhaps not until the start of the 2007 season, Army Corps of Engineers officials confirmed Wednesday.

They said the magnitude and complexity of installing the gates, which requires configuring as many as 28 separate pumps, platforms and diesel engines, makes it impossible to provide the 6,000 cubic feet per second of drainage capacity that corps officials had been working to have ready in September.

The soonest that level may be attainable is Oct. 31. All corps officials can guarantee this year is 2,400 to 2,800 cubic feet per second of drainage capacity using auxiliary pumps now being installed adjacent to each structure. They will try to use portable pumps to add 1,000 cfs."

But the Corps rewriting history is not new. However, you'd think they would bother to look at their own contemporaneous newsletters, which make clear construction was continuing on the gates and pumps throughout the 2006 hurricane season. The June 12, 2006 newsletter even says this:"The company selected to manufacture these pumps to the required specifications within the specified time, delivered pumps that are not working to required specifications."

But that is only tangential to this post. The real emphasis is on Ms. Durham-Aguilera's repetition of the Corps' threat:
We're doing everything we can to not have a gap in risk reduction for the citizens of greater New Orleans."

The Corps claims the interim closure structures have between 5 and 7 usable years of life. They also claim that Option 2 would take until 2023 to build, thus their claim of a "gap," as if they are powerless.

Getting them pinned down on where they got the 5-7 year number is not easy. Combing through their public statements seems to evince two excuses: a) The above mentioned corrosion excuse and b) a limited lifespan on the much-investigated MWI hydraulic pumps. I'll tackle the pump one first.

Corps excuse #1 - the hydraulic pumps have limited lifetime
As to the first excuse, project manager Dan Bradley let slip that the 5-7 year number, whatever its origin, doesn't have a basis in reality last month.

During a presentation to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East on October 15, 2009 (the same day as his boss, President Obama, was in town), Bradley let this gem out:

"Mr. Estopinal commented that it was stated in the reports he read that the projected life span of the temporary pumps is about 5 1/2 years and 50,000 operating hours. He asked for a clarification of the life span. Mr. Bradley responded that the 50,000 operating hours had to do with the life span of a gear within the pump. Other things, including the gear, govern the life span of the pumps. Therefore, five to seven years was expected to be a reasonable serviceable life. This does not mean that the serviceable life could not be prolonged a few more years with maintenance; however, an increasing amount of money would have to be put into the system."

Oops! I thought everything would fall apart if they didn't start the Option 1 bid process right now! Turns out, when it comes to the MWI pumps, it's just a matter of cash.

How much cash, you ask? Assuming $5 million in maintenance a year for all three closures, and excluding the flowrates from the direct-drive, non-hydraulic pumps (about 40%), leaves about $3 million a year to maintain the hydraulic pumps. Multiplied by the extra amount of time the Corps estimates Option 2 would take over Option 1 (9 years), that's an additional $27 million in maintenance on the existing hydraulic pumps. Not an insubstantial sum, but also not huge either. Plus, there are opportunites for savings in current maintenance expenses. For example, by the time 2013 rolls around, the Corps will have spent over $1.5 million to rent three used cranes (they act as backup to the hydraulic winches on the gates), when they could have simply purchased them for a fraction of the price.

By the by, Mr. Bradley is - ahem - bending the truth when he refers to the 50,000 hour lifespan of "a gear within the pump." The 50,000 hour figure actually was referring to the specified lifetime of bearings within the MWI pump units. Now, there are definitely difficulties with the gearboxes on the MWI pumps, which were substantially detailed in the OSC report (Part 1, Part 2) from earlier this year - specifically that the gearboxes are undersized for their service according to their manufacturer's published catalog data. However, that's not what Bradley was saying. He - like many the Corps sends out to talk to government representatives - relies on his audience not knowing the minutae of the subject at hand.

Corps excuse #2 - corrosion of the interim closure structure will limit their lifetime
As Ms. Durham-Aguilera mentioned, the Corps also has a talking point that corrosion is a problem. Their message discipline was on display in Bradley's comments about the topic to the October 15th, 2009 SLFPA-E meeting, which sound almost identical to Durham-Aguilera's on November 5, 2009. First, Bradley's statements:
"Mr. Barry asked that Mr. Bradley detail the situation concerning the interim structures, since much of the pressure is due to the condition of those structures. Mr. Bradley explained that after Hurricane Katrina the USACE was in a hurry to get closure structures in place in the outfall canals before the 2006 hurricane season. The architects/engineers (A/E) were rapidly attempting to get the structures in place knowing at that time that the permanent pump stations would be three to five years down the line. Much of the structuring was not actually coated and is exposed steel. Therefore, many of the problems are due to corrosion. Last year the maintenance cost was approximately $5 million. The cost of maintenance could increase each year and these costs are coming out of the project funds."

And Durham-Aguilera on November 5:
"The thing that we're all remembering - especially from the engineers' point of view - the outfall canals, closure gates, and pump stations are temporary structures. You know, our mission was to get those in place before another hurricane season, and that is what we we did, and they were out there by June, 2006. They were never made to be long term. They are exposed in the elements. They are subject to corrosion. So our job is to get those replaced as quickly as possible. And even if we start today, it's going to be spring of 2014 before we're done because it's a very complicated construction project. So that's why we're so driven to keep moving forward, so that we're doing everything we can to not have a gap in risk reduction for the citizens of greater New Orleans."

So they claim that due to the interim closure structures' exposure to the weather, they won't last more than a few years, with the implication that there's nothing that can be done about it. That's not true.

They are attempting to make the corrosion argument using this Black & Veatch internal report (released in April of this year, but substantially prepared in mid-2007) on how to make the ICS's last for 25 to 50 years with adequate maintenance. Nowhere within its text does it say the structures are vulnerable to failure within 5 to 7 years due to corrosion.

The only time that a definitive lifespan on the closure structures is mentioned in relation to corrosion is this:

"The equations determining the allowable corrosion (sacrificial steel) at any point in the nonoverflow structure sheet piling indicate there is a large safety factor in the cofferdam design. About 0.25 inches (250 mils) of corrosion can be tolerated without catastrophic results. Based on the average (4.5 mils/year) and maximum (9.0 mils/year) submerged zone corrosion rates given in Appendix C Table 1.4-1, the estimated service life of the non-overflow structure is in the range of 28 to 55 years."

The "non-overflow" structures are those sheetpile-enclosed masses on either sides of the gate structures themselves:

The report points to corrosion as a one problem among many with the interim closure strucutres, and suggests a number of remedies to allow the structures to be used for 50 years. Some of those remedies have already been implemented, such as sandblasting and painting of all the exposed piping on the sites.

Other remedies are pretty common sense - coating exposed steel sheet pile with coal tar epoxy for example. The Corps already calls for this in every specification it sends out for driving sheet pile which will have exposed length above ground. The report also calls for implementation of cathodic protection as well as covering other exposed surfaces with appropriate coatings.

Fortunately, this report includes all the detailed cost estimates for this work. Care to hazard a guess at what the Corps is refusing to spend on corrosion protection for the current structures to make them suitable for 50 years of service? The princely sum of $9,163,500.

And don't forget: the Corps has already spent $1,972,867 to Creek Services, LLC out of Gretna on contract W912P8-09-C-0001 (aka W912P8-08-C-0108) to do a large chunk of this work - painting the pipes. So the actual sum is approxmately,


So basically the Corps is threatening the public with the near-imminent demise of the interim closure structures due to corrosion because they are unwilling to spend a little over $7 million on corrosion protection which could last 50 years. For comparison, the Corps New Orleans District has a public relations contract worth well over $5 million with Outreach Process Partners.

$7.2 million is about 0.9% of the $802 million already appropriated to the permanent pump stations, or $3 million less than the $10 million the Corps wants the property taxpayers of New Orleans to pay every year for forcing Option 1 on them instead of taking the time to do Option 2 (see my earlier post "The story so far"on the tax implications of Option 1).

Oops, again.

The Corps cheaps out - again

So, in sum, the Corps is threatening the New Orleans area with failure of their interim closure structures - a violation of Congressional direction to provide 100 year protection - if they don't build something - the technically inferior Option 1 - before then. In fact, there is no imminent threat. The Corps already has admitted and has had consultants tell them in detail what is needed to prolong the lives of the ICS's for as long as they need to. At the most, doing so until Option 2 is complete would cost about $27 million in hydraulic pump maintenance and $7 million in corrosion protection, a fairly minor sum in the midst of the Corps' $14.3 billion appropriation from Congress. By comparison, if Option 1 is built by 2014 instead of constructing Option 2 by 2023, the citizens of New Orleans would pay an extra $90 million in increased property taxes over those 9 years the Corps refuses to do their job.

Essentially, the Corps is saying citizens should pay $90 million out of their own pockets for an inferior system rather than the Corps paying $34 million out of appropriations they already have, and then going back to Congress to refill the pot.

And that is what this all comes down to - money, and the Corps' apparent embarrassment in having to ask for more of it. There is no imminent danger of a "gap in risk reduction" from the reasons the Corps has given (not that there aren't other good reasons to get the ICS's out of there, but the Corps will never admit to them because it would be tremendously embarrassing).

We know they are short on money for armoring, for mitigation, for the West Closure Complex, and for Option 2. We also know they're skimping on Option 1 stations. The bill is coming due within the next year, so they just need to man up and ask for what they need to give the citizens of the New Orleans area and this country what they promised. And they need to stop lying.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Corps pants a raging inferno

At the November 19, 2009 Corps public meeting held to take input from the public on the shape of the bid documents for the permanent pump station project, the following mind-numbing bombshell was dropped by the Corps' Colonel Bob Sinkler, head of the Hurricane Protection Office (from coverage by the Times-Picayune):
"Col. Robert Sinkler, commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, which is overseeing the projects for the corps, said the corps is working on a study to determine which floodwalls along the canals might need to be replaced, and has $90 million set aside to pay for that work. But that work won't be complete until sometime after the June 2011 deadline for construction of the rest of the hurricane risk reduction system, he said."

This is huger than huge.

The Corps has had a program underway for months, if not longer, to band-aid the walls along the canals. We know it has been going since at least May of this year, because that is when the comprehensive resurvey of the 17th Street canal happened. The actual survey records are here and here.

The Corps has claimed for years that language from the 4th Katrina Supplemental did not give them authorization to modify the canal walls. That language - drafted by the Corps - says the Corps is to
"modify the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue, and London Avenue drainage canals and install pumps and closure structures at or near the lakefront..."

They claimed the word "modify" did not apply to the walls along the canals. I believe the head of the Corps, General Van Antwerp Brigadier General Michael Walsh, claimed this in testimony before Congress in June (obviously after the wall repair program was underway):
"Local stakeholders have sought support for Options 2 and 2a which would expand the scope of work to include significant modifications to the three main outfall canals of the City's interior drainage system in addition to the pumping stations that are being built under Option 1. Since Options 2 and 2a address interior rainwater drainage issues and not storm surge protection, both exceed our current authority and would require additional authorization and funding for construction."
It has also shown up repeatedly in Corps propaganda update newsletters and in other testimony to other public bodies, like Colonel Sinkler's presentation to the New Orleans City Council on November 5, 2009.

Now we have it straight from the Corps' mouth that they have set aside nearly $100 million dollars to not only "rehabilitate" or "physically improve" canal walls, they are actually looking at replacing some of them. Under any definition, that is "modify"ing the canals.

The public acknowledgement of this band-aid program unleashes a can of worms:

1) It means the Individual Environmental Report #5 (issued at the same time this program was doing the initial survey work) was incomplete, and must be reopened. The Corps' preferred alternative in IER#5 contains no mention of any work getting done along the canal walls. Thus, the public was not fully informed of the Corps' plans - and ONGOING WORK - on the canals and were thus deprived of their legal right to comment in full. This is not a minor problem.

2) It means the Corps has been negotiating in bad faith with the State of Louisiana on a Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) for the permanent pumps, and that any PPA should be placed on hold until the full scope of the Corps' work has been publicly vetted.

3) It means that there is no excuse - other than money - not to proceed with Option 2 at this point. And determining the amount of money clearly needs to be done by an outside party,since the Corps has wildly inflated their Option 2 estimates to attempt to force the public into Option 1.

The Corps has been trying to keep this under wraps until the PPA was signed, since that agreement is the only roadblock to them doing whatever the hell they want. The problem is now clear - they didn't ask for enough money in the 4th, 5th, and 6th Katrina Supplementals. They are short on funds for armoring, mitigation, the West Closure Complex, and Option 2.

They need to man up and go back to Congress and just ask for more cash to finish what they started. All these games meant to keep them looking good are ridiculous, and will eventually harm the public.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The story so far

[Updated after meeting - see bottom of post]

The Corps is planning a round of public meetings to take input on the synopsis and the phase 1 RFP for the permanent pump stations. The first meeting is due to take place November 19, 2009 (details here).

They had previously scheduled such a series, with the first one scheduled for October, but they had cancelled them to gve more time to negotiate the Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) with the state. Now, even with the PPA under negotiation, they are pushing ahead with the first meeting. It is undoubtedly a cheap PR move on their part to tell a room full of citizens that the State is holding up their storm protection - a lie of course.

In advace of that meeting, what do we now know about the Corps' plans for the permanent pump stations? And what is the Corps likely to say?

A quick primer first:

Option 1 installs new pump stations at the lake to replace the current interim closure structures. It leaves the city pump stations, the walls, and the levees along the canals in place.

Option 2 also installs lakefront pump stations, and it removes the city pumping stations and lowers the existing canal bottoms. It also lines the canal bottoms with concrete and effectively turns the canals into gravity drains similar to systems used elsewhere throughout Jefferson and other parts of Orleans Parish. The canal bottoms would be below grade, and the weakened walls - the ones that failed in Katrina and are now prohibited from seeing their maximum design loads by so-called "safe water elevations" - would be removed from seeing water. The Corps' own technical analysis calls Option 2 superior to Option 1.

Naturally, the Corps is pushing ahead with the cheaper, less technically superior Option 1, over the objections of everyone from the citizens up to the State government.

1) The Corps claims everything is paid for with federal dollars

FALSE. While the construction of the new Option 1 pump stations is fully federally funded, operation and maintenance of the future pump stations will likely fall on to the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans, a perenially cash-strapped agency still recovering from Katrina and which already operates four pump stations along the three outfall canals. Drainage operations are funded through property taxes, which have falled precipitously since the storm (the City of New Orleans faces a $67 million deficit this year due in part to a drop in property tax collection).

The standard estimate for the annual cost of operation and maintenance of drainage pumping structures is $500,000 per 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The total amount of cfs proposed for the three new pump stations in Option 1 is around 20,000 cfs. That means the S&WB needs to come up with an extra $10 million a year in their drainage budget. According to the 2009 S&WB operating budget, the drainage operating budget is about $27.7 million. And now the Corps want to drop another $10 million in the laps of the taxpayers of New Orleans through Option 1 - which adds three stations but does not subtract any. How exactly is the S&WB supposed to account for a 36% jump in expenses with no corresponding increase in revenues? There's only one way: raise property taxes on citizens.

Option 2 would be tax-neutral, since it replaces the city pumps one-for-one with lakefront pumps. In fact, it might even have a stimulative effect on property taxes, as potential homeowners see a safer, superior system get installed in place of the already-proven-to-fail walls. But the Corps would rather stick with their cheaper Option 1 alternative while they saddle the citizens with a $500 million tax bill over the 50 year design life of the project. That's the dirty little secret of Option 1.

2) The Corps will claim that Congress forced them into Option 1 through the authorization and funding levels in the law, and they only do what Congress tells them.

FALSE. In 2005, it was the Corps that drafted the language that authorized the permanent pump station project, including the amount of funding for it. That language includes the words "modify the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue, and London Avenue drainage canals," and - despite the plain language - the Corps has dictated (and gotten the Office of Management and Budget to buy into) the idea that "modify" does not apply to the entire length of the canal, only the vicinity of the pump stations at the lakefront.

Also, it was the funding amount that was the key to understanding that the Corps CHOSE Option 1. That funding amount was their very early post-Katrina estimate for Option 1, taken from their internal documents. Their estimate for Option 2 only came in $190 million higher, and they could have asked for that amount and crafted ironclad Option 2 language, but they CHOSE not to at the very moment they had a golden opportunity to ask for whatever they wanted. The Corps cheaped out and cheated New Orleans out of the better, safer option. There's lot's more details on this in my September 30, 2009 post, "The fix was in."

3) As a result of (2), the Corps claims they are not authorized to "modify" the entire length of the canals to Option 2 depths.

FALSE, by their own public admission.

Within the last two weeks, three separate Corps officials, including the two most senior officials on the ground in New Orleans, have confirmed the Corps is planning major "rehabilitation" and "physical improvements" to the canal walls which sound just like what would occur under Option 2, short of digging the canals deeper.

In response to a question from the City Council at their November 5, 2009 meeting (video here, slides here), Task Force Hope leader Karen Durham-Aguilera, the civilian program director for the entire Corps effort around New Orleans, said (at about 2:17:38 on the video),

"We've got engineering analyses of those outfall canal walls and those safe water elevations ongoing right now with Sewerage & Water Board and levee authorities. So we're looking to see if we can physically improve those walls further and assure that Sewerage & Water Baord would not have an overtopped system."

A few minutes later, Colonel Bob Sinkler, the head of the Hurricane Protection Office, said (at about 2:23:48 on the video),

"After the Safe Water Elevation studies are complete and after they [the canal walls] are rehabilitated based upon the information we gather from those studies, they will be able to accommodate any needs that the Sewerage & Water Board has to remove rainwater through those canals. And things are well on track to do that. We're working hand in hand with the Sewerage & Water Board to ensure that's the case."

Finally in a report aired on Fox 8 just this week (story here, video here), Corps engineer John Grieshaber gave pertinent details:

"'There are a number of possibilities and they are unique to different situations. Deep soil mixing is one, driving new sheet pile to cut off seepage is another, modification of the internal walls of the canal, and putting relief wells,' Grieshaber said. 'Deep soil mixing is when you actually go into the foundation and you mix cement and form columns which changes the strength of the soil. It makes the soil a lot stronger.'"

Those methods mentioned by Grieshaber - deep soil mixing (DSM), seepage cutoff walls, etc - are all integral to the plans for Option 2 laid out in the key 2009 Black & Veatch "90 Day Study."

That report studied three ways to deepen the canals. Style 1 is shown here:

and is described as,
"This alternative provides support of the existing floodwalls of the canal through a combination of a soldier pile system and DSM. The soldier piles and DSM will provide the support of the existing parallel protection floodwalls during construction, support of the final canal banks and act as the vertical seepage cut-off."

Style 2:

"This alternative provides support of the existing floodwalls of the canal through a combination of soldier pile system and DSM. The DSM will provide the support of the existing parallel protection floodwalls as described in the previous alternative. The soldier piles are extended to the depth of the deep seepage cut-off."

And Style 3:

"This is a trapezoidal canal alternative that incorporates a perimeter deep soil mixing/jet grouting component to control seepage, ground modification to improve slope stability, and grout filled fabric form to form the canal perimeter"

Style 3 is what was used for the Corps' cost estimate in the 2009 Cost Report to Congress:
"The cost estimate includes a trapezoidal shaped canal with deep soil mixing/jet grouting and the grout filled fabric forms bottom and side slopes. This was the least cost of severl methods reviewed"

How exactly are the "rehabilitation" and "physical improvements" the Corps plans on for the existing canals in the near future any different than the actions of Option 2? It certainly appears they are substantially the same, with only the final depth of the canal and placement of a slab on the bottom of the canal providing the difference. Both make substantial changes - modifications - to the canals. If the Corps can make these changes locally at certain spots in the canals, they can do them along their entire lengths.

4) The Corps will claim the bid process has to get underway soon, because the existing gate structures and pumps have a "limited life," and that leaving them there will put citizens at increased risk.

FALSE. This is the most odious veiled threat the Corps puts out there. Do they seriously think citizens believe the Corps is going to allow their gate structures to simply melt away, fall apart, or otherwise disintegrate?

The Corps Dan Bradley - the public face of the permanent pump station project -has already said publicly to the SLFPA-East (the east bank levee authority) on September 17, 2009 they are spending approximately $5 million in maintenance on the three existing interim closure structures:
"Mr. Goins asked about the USACE’s plan for maintaining the Interim Control Structures should there be additional slippage in completing the permanent project. Mr. Bradley replied that the USACE has a good maintenance program in place. The estimated annual cost of the ICS maintenance is approximately $5 million, which increases each year. The maintenance costs are coming out of the project budget."

That last sentence is probably more key than anything - the Corps is not paying for Operations with money from their Operations budget; they are using project funds to do so. I'm not sure if they are statutorily required to do so, or if they could transfer money from elsewhere in their District budget to run the closure structures and save the cash for the purpose it was meant - building new stations.

Anyway, the biggest maintenance concern - corrosion - is already being dealt with on a continuous basis. After years of delay, the Corps sandblasted and painted all the exposed piping on the structures late last year and earlier this year, as documented in updates to my post, "More on pipes ... and rust."

Also, they are engaging in (or have already completed) repairs to some pumps - supposedly due to corrosion. WWL-TV reported on August 4th, 2009 that,
"...some of the pumps at the 17th Street Canal have been pulled out of the site after inspectors discovered problems with six of the hydraulic pumps there...
A routine inspection uncovered major corrosion on six of the pumps. Corps officials said a high salinity content in the water may be to blame...
Because the six pumps are located underwater, the only way to fix them is to bring them onto dry land, effectively taking them out of the pumping system...
The Corps said, during repairs, they are only removing two of the pumps at a time, in order to maintain a 95 percent pumping capacity."

I hope to have more information on these repairs in the near future.

As one can see, they are already engaging in maintenance to keep the system running. The threat that they will choose not to maintain the system at some point, and that they are using such a threat to push public support toward an inferior design, is nose-curling. But it's par for the course for an organization statutorily protected from liability from defects in flood control works.

There's more on the Corps strategy to use threats and intimidation in my post, "Corps to NOLA: Drop Dead (unless we get Option 1)." They have repeated this threat as recently as November 5, 2009, at the New Orleans City Council meeting.

5) The Corps will claim that even though they are forcing Option 1 on people, they are designing the pump stations to be "adaptable," so that any modifications needed for Option 2 will be minimal.

half TRUE, half FALSE. The Corps has committed to built pump stations which have deepened foundations designed to accommodate future deepening of the canals, and they've also committed to put in buildings that are sized to handle the bigger equipment of the future Option 2. Those commitments do not appear anywhere in a legally binding document yet, though, so take them at face value.

More importantly, a number of features which would also make the stations truly adaptable from Option 1 to Option 2 are not currently included in their plans. Those features being left out in order to cut down on the cost of the Option 1 stations include:

a) Pump inlets, such as formed suction inlets, or "FSI's," which do not need changing when the stations are converted
b) Installation of bigger pump drive equipment now, to avoid future higher costs.
c) Installation of adequate generators and fuel storage now for future Option 2 needs, which would avoid future higher costs.
d) A smooth, sloped transition from the current high elevation of the channel bottoms to the deepened pump station foundation. The Corps wants to just put in an abrupt step (called a retaining wall), which will induce turbulence at the pump inlets and increase pump maintenance costs, as well as becoming a place to trap silt.
e) Complete, redundant backflow protection - an obvious need after what happened in Jefferson Parish during Katrina, when their backflow systems failed without operators to attend them.
f) This is the big one - the Corps does not want to include upgrades to the walls along the entire lengths of the canals in this project. See (3) above.

There's lots of detail on these and all the other features of the proposed stations in my four part series, "Pennywise:" Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

6) The Corps claims Option 1 will be just as safe as Option 2

FALSE. Option 1 leaves the existing canals in place forever, with their requirements for maintenance dredging. As I explain in my October 20, 2009 entry, "Silted In," the current canals have silt building up in them at an alarming rate, and will need to be cleaned out soon. The last time the 17th Street canal was dredged, it led to - in part - the wall failure in Katrina. Do we really want clamshell buckets hauling away cubic yards of material from the canal bottoms within feet of these already-weakened canal walls?

So do you still trust the Corps to do the right thing through Option 1? It's something they chose because it's cheaper for them, but more expensive in the long run for the taxpayers. It's inferior from an engineering standpoint, and even what they are proposing doesn't pass the sniff test.

I hope the citizens of New Orleans realize what a raw deal they are getting, and that they let the Corps and their elected representatives know.

From the T-P's coverage of the November 19, 2009 meeting, a bombshell:
"Col. Robert Sinkler, commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, which is overseeing the projects for the corps, said the corps is working on a study to determine which floodwalls along the canals might need to be replaced, and has $90 million set aside to pay for that work. But that work won't be complete until sometime after the June 2011 deadline for construction of the rest of the hurricane risk reduction system, he said."

First off, this appears to be typical Corps good news/bad news - we'll do the right thing, but it's over four years later and it's going to take probably another three to actually do it. And to top it all off, we're going to keep it secret until a public meeting where only a small cross section of the public shows up.

The bombshell part is that this announcement blows the Corps' argument that they are not authorized to proceed wth Option 2 out of the water. They are setting aside nearly $100 million and planning on a multi-year project which could not only repair or shore up walls, but could actually replace them. If that isn't "modifying" the canals, I don't know what is. At this point, the only real thing stopping them is their lack of balls in asking Congress for enough cash for Option 2.

Also, how does Colonel Sinkler get off not telling the New Orleans City Council this huge news at their November 5th meeting, just two weeks ago? The City Council - and government officials at every level - need to get him in front of them and get a full explanation of what the hell is going on, and why vital information like this is being withheld.

One other note, also from the T-P article:
"Marcia St. Martin, director of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, said the new pump stations will add $10 million a year to the board's annual budget, and that her agency continues to prefer two options that would deepen the drainage canals and remove the interior pump stations."

It's nice to see that number publicly confirmed by the head of the agency who must bear the costs. Hopefully, the public understands the burden Option 1 will be.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Parsing: Corps publicly commits to fix outfall canal walls

[Updated 11/17/09]

I kind of wish the local media more than one representative of the local media had paid close attention to the November 5, 2009 City Council meeting, because they would have heard a rather amazing pair of statements from the Corps' Karen Durham-Aguilera and Colonel Sinkler, heads of Task Force Hope and the Hurricane Protection Office respectively.

The slides for the meeting - including 25 slides not shown to the public - are available here. The video of the meeting is available here. The first statement comes at about 2:17:38 into the meeting.

In response to a question from the Council, Ms. Durham-Aguilera, the civilian program director for the entire Corps effort around New Orleans, says,

"We've got engineering analyses of those outfall canal walls and those safe water elevations ongoing right now with Sewerage & Water Board and levee authorities. So we're looking to see if we can physically improve those walls further and assure that Sewerage & Water Baord would not have an overtopped system."

A few minutes later, at 2:23:48, again in response to a question, Col. Sinkler says,

"After the Safe Water Elevation studies are complete and after they [the canal walls] are rehabilitated based upon the information we gather from those studies, they will be able to accommodate any needs that the Sewerage & Water Board has to remove rainwater through those canals. And things are well on track to do that. We're working hand in hand with the Sewerage & Water Board to ensure that's the case."

This is HUGE news. After over four years, the Corps has publicly pledged to fix the walls along the outfall canals to eliminate the need for "safe water levels." So when will those studies be done?

"The corps' new goal is to have all three new analyses -- along with any residual work required to raise safe water elevations -- finished no later than the June 1 start of next hurricane season."
- Times-Picayune, September 28, 2009


So they won't even begin designing improvements until the 2010 hurricane season. Maybe they'll be done for the fifth anniversary of Katrina next August.

By the way, don't forget the Corps had plans right from the beginning in early 2006 for "bank stabilization contracts" which would have shored up the walls along with installing the gates and pumps that are out there now. Those contracts were budgeted at $29 million and were included in the same document which laid out the plans for the gates, Revision 1 of the post-storm Project Information Report. The scope of those contracts is here, while the budgetary numbers are here:

I've already written about the bank stabilization plans three times before: September 14, 2006, January 13, 2007, and March 15, 2007. Those plans went "poof" at some point, probably around the same time the Corps was deciding it was too expensive to line the canals as part of the permanent solution - late 2005 and early 2006. Who knows where the money went?

Now admittedly, the scope of bank stabilization has undoubtedly changed as the Corps has studied the problem repeatedly ad infinatum over the last four years, but the intent to do something and to set aside tens of millions of dollars were there right after the storm. And here we are over four years later, and the Corps is now "announcing" the same thing like the citizens of New Orleans should be pleased they've come to the same conclusion they came to years ago. And it could be another year before anything at all is done.

So while it is BIG news that they are saying they will "rehabilitate" and "physically improve" the walls after not doing anything to them since spring of 2007 (minor work at 17th Street to bring the Safe Water Elevation there up to 6 feet), one must remember the context - they already decided to do this once before, and then shifted the dollars somewhere else. The difference this time around is that they have said it in a public meeting that is on video for perpetuity, rather than in an internal report that no one gets to see without at FOIA request. They need to have their feet held to the fire this time around, especially since they have decided - against the wishes of all the people actually protected by their work - that Option 1 is the way.

Update - 11/17/09
On November 16, 2009's 9 PM newscast, local TV station Fox 8 covered this story, (video here)providing more essential detail.

The nut of the article is provided by the Corps John Grieshaber:
"'There are a number of possibilities and they are unique to different situations. Deep soil mixing is one, driving new sheet pile to cut off seepage is another, modification of the internal walls of the canal, and putting relief wells,' Grieshaber said. 'Deep soil mixing is when you actually go into the foundation and you mix cement and form columns which changes the strength of the soil. It makes the soil a lot stronger.'"

All of these methods are quite extreme, far more extreme than the simple pouring of rock done near the I-10 bridge over the 17th Street canal in 2007. In fact, deep soil mixing (DSM) and driving seepage cutoffs are the exact methods proposed for the canal deepening that is at the heart of Option 2, which the Corps claims they are not authorized to build. Black & Veatch wrote about both of these methods extensively in their description of the canal deepening options in the 2009 90-day report. The phrase "DSM" appears 44 times in that report.

The fact the Corps has acknowledged they are essentially looking at completely rebuilding sections of the canal walls (likely along London Avenue, but very possibly along 17th Street as well) in the style of Option 2 is quite a large admission.

A few points regarding this:

1) The gates have never been closed at the Orleans Avenue canal, since its safe water level is 8 feet, a very, very tall limit. If similar safe water elevations had been in effect since Katrina all three canals instead of just one, there would have been NO NEED for closure of the Corps' gates and the operation of the Corps' much-investigated pumps since their installation. Instead, the gates at 17th Street (SWE = 6 feet) have dropped twice (Gustav & Ike, both in 2008), and the London gates (SWE = 5 feet) have dropped four times (Gustav & Ike, September, 2009, and Tropical Storm Ida in 2009).

2) The gates and pumps have cost over $400 million in engineering, construction, and maintenance since 2005. How much more bang for their buck could the Corps have gotten by also putting a sum far smaller than that into the walls as well?

3) I have repeatedly asked representatives of Corps Public Affairs offices at the District, Division, and Headquarters level to comment on this story over recent days, but they have not responded to my requests. However, they have spent hours reading my blog; I assume there will be a press release at some point, because otherwise they are ignoring the possibility of "getting their side of the story" out there - a tenet of their strategic communications strategy.

4) The Corps wants to implement Option 1 - against the wishes of local citizens and their representatives - but they have done very little to ensure the entire system of Option 1, i.e. the canals themselves, will work properly. It has been over four years, and besides fixing the breaches and obviously damaged portions of the canal walls and levees, all the Corps has done is pour some rock along a short stretch of the inside of the 17th Street canal.

If the Corps is so hell-bent on putting in Option 1, they should be forced - in writing - to implement engineering measures to ensure safe water levels in each canals that can never impede drainage flow during any rainfall event - as long as those measures do not also impede future Option 2 canal deepening. And the perfect vehicle for that written promise is the Project Patnership Agreement (PPA) governing the permanant pump stations project. That PPA is currently being negotiated between the Corps and the State of Louisiana. The localities may never have another opportunity to make the Corps commit to these repairs again - the PPA is the best chance. Let's hope the state steps up - now that there has been multiple acknowledgements of the wall repair efforts in public - and makes the Corps stand behind their statements with legally enforceable language.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Slippage - Part 2

As mentioned in my previous post Karen Durham-Aguilera and Col. Sinkler were scheduled to appear before the City Council on November 5th. They did so, and the video is here. And the slide presentation - with 25 slides not presented to the public - is here.

As expected, there was a lot of other "stuff" in their presentation, with the list of late projects on page 7, after all the Big Numbers.

So here's the list:

For reference, here's the list that was presented at the August 18 CRPA meeting:

From a surface perspective, things appear to have gotten better. There are now only 12 late projects on the list rather than 15. Also, many of the problem projects in St Bernard Parish and Orleans parish are apparently now on a faster track.

However, there are also some deepening problems. Moving through some of the same topics as in my last post...

West Closure Complex

The biggest problem that jumps out is the West Closure Complex (WBV-90), with its 100 year protection completion date of September 18, 2011, ten days later than the schedule from three months ago.

The Corps is pouring around a billion dollars into this project on the West Bank. On October 30, 2009, they held a big groundbreaking to-do, with invited dignitaries and media. The Times-Picayune and the Associated Press and local TV stations covered it, and the Corps got the story that they wanted out there, including a huge lie from the Corps.

From Fox 8's coverage:
"The surge gates should be complete by the 2011 hurricane season, according to Corps spokesmen."

and from the Times-Picayune, as I noted in the last post:
"The floodgates are expected to be completed by June 2011"

Finally, the Corps has repeated the same thing in their own propaganda update, published November 9th, 2009:
"The nearly $1 billion complex will provide 100-year level risk reduction by hurricane season 2011."

That is not the truth. The truth is that according to the Corps' own schedule, the West Closure Complex will not offer 100 year protection to the vast majority of the West Bank until most of the 2011 hurricane season is over.

By the way, the cost of the project appears to be ballooning also. The Times-Picayune mentioned this,
"Friday's event capped a week in which the corps held a three-day closed-door summit at a Metairie hotel to brainstorm ways to cut $200 million to $300 million from the project to keep it under budget.

Tom Podany, chief of the corps' protection and restoration office, said it's unclear whether the goal was met because the corps is still reviewing the proposals.

'This is part of the normal process of doing cost containment and trying to find the best value,' he said. 'We're looking at different construction techniques to keep the project under budget and on schedule."

St Bernard Parish projects

Another worrying development is the further latening of the completion of the storm protection around St Bernard Parish. In August, all three major projects were due to be late. While two of them (LPV-145 and LPV-146) have apparently been pulled back, the third one (LPV-148.02) has gotten radically later. LPV 148.02 is the levee and planned T-wall on the southern side of the Parish.

In August, the projected 100-year completion date was September 7, 2011, which was bad enough. Now, it has slipped another three months to December 11, 2011, or completely after the 2011 hurricane season. Two other St Bernard projects also will not be done until after the deadline.

West Return Wall

Finally, Colonel Gunter's comments at the August 6, 2009 City Council meeting about pulling the West Return Wall (which is the western flank of storm protection in Jefferson Parish) back before the deadline have proven dead wrong. Both north and south segments have slipped further since the August update, with a 100-year completion date of the fifth anniversary of Katrina.


Of course, none of this is the Corps' fault; it never is. While the slide with the late projects was up on the screen, here is what Karen Durham-Aguilera said:
"To get this amount of construction done in a relatively short amount of time is an intense amount of work. We do have several contracts that are projected beyond June 2011. These are on this slide. A year ago, there were 27. Today, there are 12. Even the ones on this list have improved considerably from where they were a few months ago. And just about everything is in the summer of 2011. So this continues to be something we work on, along with the state, the levee authorities, and the levee districts, and our construction firms to continue to see how much time we make up during construction.

A lot of the challenges with these projects before they're awarded is the real estate acquisition and the real estate needs that the state and the levee authorities have to deliver to allow us to do the construction. But once we get through that hurdle we're ready to go and we make up a lot of time then."

So the only reason that the largest civil works project underway in the entire country will be late - according to the person titularly in charge of that effort - is that the locals are slow on delivering the land.

There's one other thing about her statements above. She claims, "Even the ones on this list have improved considerably from where they were a few months ago." That's just not true. Of the 12 projects on the latest list, only four have had their 100 year completion dates improve since August. The other 8 have all slipped, some substantially. In fact, 2 of those 8 were previously projected to be completed on time, and have now slipped past June 1, 2011.

It shouldn't be this hard to parse everything the Corps says, and one shouldn't need such a tremendous amount of knowledge to interpret it. They have a long way to go in being straight with the public.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


On November 5, 2009, Karen Durham-Aguilera, civilian head of the Corps' Task Force Hope, and Col. Robert Sinkler, head of the Hurricane Protection Office, are due to testify before the New Orleans City Council. They should be giving an update on which projects are projected to miss the June 1, 2011 deadline for 100 year protection of the greater New Orleans area.

Most likely, their presentation will include a lot of information about stuff they've already done, with the meat of the data - which projects will be late - buried in the middle and with little context. The projects will be listed by internal Corps project codes, and they won't show exactly where they are located or what the projects actually are. How do we know? Because they've already done so twice this year in just that fashion.

The Corps gave two project updates on this topic in August 2009. Those updates were only given because of June, 2009 media reports (from WWL-TV and the Times-Picayune) which detailed exactly which projects in the 100-year effort would not meet the June 1, 2011 date. Otherwise, it is unlikely this information would have ever been revealed.

The City Council hosted the first presentation. On August 6, 2009, two Corps colonels (Sinkler and Greg Gunter) appeared at the Council. They brought a Powerpoint presentation which mostly just gave an update on current and future projects without any relevant dates. But they did deign to include one slide which actually laid out the projects projected to finish beyond June 1, 2011.

The full presentation is here, and here's the important slide (Slide #5) with the late projects:

Video of the meeting is available on the City Council's website here.

As you can see, the list is substantial. For example, the highlighted projects (LPV-106.01, -109.02a, and -111.01) represent the majority of the levees surrounding New Orleans East:

(from May 14, 2009 Corps meeting slides)

During that August 6 presentation the colonels made a promise of a biweekly update of critical path projects. That never was fulfilled.

Here's the other stuff that came out of that August 6, 2009 presentation:

Late projects in St Bernard Parish

While the meeting was held in New Orleans, there was vital information regarding St Bernard Parish that was glossed over.

Specifically, both Colonels neglected to highlight the fact that all three major levee projects in St Bernard Parish, collectively referred to as the Chalmette Loop Levee, would not be ready before June 1, 2011. This was a new, very important development since those late June media reports about the Corps missing the deadline, which was what prompted the August 6th appearance.

Here's a map of where those projects (LPV-145, -146, and -148) are. They are shown in yellow:

(from May 11, 2009 Corps meeting slides)

Here's the post-6/1/2011 completion dates of those three projects as reported on Slide #5 at the August 6th meeting, along with how their 100-year completion dates compare to the late June figures:

LPV-148, 100 year completion September 7, 2011 (Slipped 6 weeks since 6/18/09)
LPV-145, 100 year completion Aug 23, 2011 (Slipped at least 2.5 MONTHS since 6/18/09 - was not late on previous lists)
LPV-146, 100 year completion July 10, 2011 (Slipped 7 MONTHS since 6/18/09 - was not late on previous lists)

As you can tell from the amount of slippage in these projects, something serious happened with these projects. The completion date for LPV-146 went from December 14, 2010 to July 10, 2011, a loss of seven months. The others lost significant ground as well. This went completely unmentioned by Colonel Gunter while Slide #5 was on screen.

And when Colonel Sinkler got to the part of the presentation specifically on St Bernard Parish projects, this development was not mentioned at all. In fact, here's what Colonel Sinkler said on the topic of the St Bernard levees:

[Slide #17 showing map of St Bernard appears]
"And then St Bernard Parish - very similar [to New Orleans East] - we're kind of concerned about these areas right now. They're between 15 and 20 feet high right now, and we do want to put an additional 8 feet or so on those levees. And our intent is to have those done by June 1st, 2011. And we're committed to that June 1st date.

"Next slide"
[Slide #18 showing details of St Bernard levee contracts appears]

"Next slide"
[Slide #18 disappears and Slide #19 showing details of Permanent Pump Stations appears]

Given the opportunity to highlight a problem that concerns the storm protection for an entire parish, Colonel Sinkler instead said "We're kind of concerned" and "Next slide."

The video for this can be found here. Move the slider to 1:51:49 to view this section of the meeting.

More projects are geting later

Just 11 days after the August 6 City Council meeting, on August 19th, the Corps gave another update on its 100 year efforts. This time it was given to the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (LA CPRA). You can find that presentation here (large file - over 30 megs).

That presentation also gives a list of projects due to be late on page 14:

Also available as a PDF here.

The list is bigger (15 projects vs the 13 at the City Council meeting) and generally has later completion dates.

The list on the CPRA presentation includes yet another St Bernard Parish project (LPV-149) in addition to the three others from the City Council presentation. It also includes the critical lynchpin project on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, the West Closure Complex, or "WCC." The WCC is a huge storm surge barrier and pumping complex that will make over 20 miles of hurricane protection structures behind it into "secondary" protection.

On the topic of LPV-149, whose official title is "Chalmette Loop Levee, Verret to Caernarvon Structures, St. Bernard Parish," the CPRA presentation says the 100 year date is July 21, 2011. It appears this project was omitted from the list at the City Council meeting, since its late status was already reported back in June. Back then, it was anticipated to reach the 100 year level of protection on June 15th, 2011, so it slipped over a month. Clearly, taken in conjunction with the substantial delays in the other St Bernard projects, there are problems with the Corps' efforts in St Bernard that are being soft-pedalled.

On the topic of the West Closure Complex, a critical project for multiple parishes, the August CPRA presentation noted that it would not be up to the 100 year level of protection until September 8, 2011, or over three months later than what was previously promised. This means that much of the Corps' "secondary" protection on the West Bank would be "primary" protection for a large chunk of the 2011 hurricane season. This may have changed by the time of the Corps' hullabaloo about this project a few days ago, since the Times-Picayune reported "The floodgates are expected to be completed by June 2011". We'll see what's reported at the City Council meeting...

West Return Wall

At the August 6th City Council presentation, while Slide #5 (the heart of the presentation, showing 13 late projects) was visible on the big screen in the Council Chambers and on local TV, Colonel Gunter spoke about three projects he claimed had been successfully "brought back" before the June 1, 2011 deadline. From his descriptions, I believe those projects to be:

a) LPV-109.02b, which is the area where I-10 crosses the easternmost levees in New Orleans East near Irish Bayou.
b) LPV-03.2A, which is the southern section of the West Return Wall (the levee between Kenner and St Charles parish), specifically the section between I-10 and the airport
c) LPV-101.02, which is the floodwall in New Orleans running from the 17th Street canal along Lake Marina Drive to Topaz St near the Municipal Yacht Harbor.

Unfortunately, Colonel Gunter neglected to point out to the Council that one of these projects - LPV-03.2A - had actually NOT been "brought back" before June 1, 2011, as was evidenced by the very slide he was presenting:

As you can see, that slide shows the date of 100 year protection for that project as July 16th, 2011.


So, a lot of news can be produced at these types of meetings, if one knows what one is seeing. Unfortunately, the Corps takes pains not to point out this sort of information, hoping the audience is not clued in to the minutae of their projects. They cover everything up with project codes and surround the actual news with lots of other pretty slides of stuff they've already done, when they are there to tell what is coming and what will be late.

I'll post an update later with what can be gleaned from today's presentaton.

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