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Corps of Engineers rushes to build pump stations 

A local advocate wonders why the Corps is in such a hurry to build pump stations

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says time is of the essence when it comes to building the permanent pump stations at the three outfall canals: London Avenue, Orleans Avenue and 17th Street. Col. Robert Sinkler, commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, says the Interim Closure Structures (ICS) at the mouths of the canals have a lifespan of five to seven years and must be replaced in order to avoid a gap in hurricane risk reduction.

  John Hummel, a mechanical engineer who retired after 37 years working for Shell Oil and is currently a board member of the advocacy group Pump-to-the-River Jefferson/Orleans (Option 2A), disagrees. Hummel says that according to a report funded by the Corps, the structures have a longer service life of 20 to 40 years.

  There is no exact expiration date for the temporary pumps and floodgates, Sinkler says, but he adds that it's difficult to predict how much past 2014 the stations can be operated and maintained. Like Sinkler, Hummel feels the timing for building the new permanent pump stations is a critical issue, but for the opposite reason. The Corps has said that if it starts building the proposed structures now, the design and construction will be "option neutral" and can be upgraded to options 2 or 2A. The Corps has estimated these latter two options — which are not authorized by Congress — would cost much more. (Based on preliminary cost comparisons produced by the Corps, Option 1 would cost $804 million while Option 2 is $3.4 billion and 2A is $3.5 billion.) Some public officials and citizen advocates like Hummel believe, however, that these options are the better choices because they eliminate the threat of floodwalls breaching as they did during Hurricane Katrina.

  Hummel says beginning work on the new stations now will hinder the possibility of Option 2 or 2A. At a New Orleans City Council meeting on Dec. 9 with Corps representatives, Hummel questioned the urgency to start work on the new pump stations: "What is the hurry with getting on with Option 1?" he asked.

To support his case for waiting, Hummel refers to the April 2009 report, "Permanent Enhancement of the ICS Facilities," prepared for the Corps by Black and Veatch (B&V), an international engineering company. B&V gives a detailed analysis of the pumps' corrosion problems caused by their exposure to the marine environment, and proposes the way to counter this debilitation is to provide protective coatings and cathodic protection, a common engineering technique involving electrodynamics that is used on pipelines, storage tanks and offshore oil platforms.

  The total cost for these procedures is $9.1 million. The report says by taking these measures, corrosion will be limited "over the 50 year structure life."

  Sinkler says the corrosion is just one aspect of the difficulties in trying to prolong the life of the interim structures beyond 2014. When Gambit asked for a thorough explanation of the overall situation, Nancy Allen, a Corps spokeswoman, sent this statement: "The lifespan of the interim closure structures at the outfall canals is limited (five to seven years) because the equipment is exposed to the harsh marine environment. ... Currently to assure public safety we are addressing corrosion on the pumps until they can be replaced by permanent structures."

  As for extending the life of the interim structures, Sinkler says it would not be cost-effective because the expenses would continue to escalate: "It would be stealing dollars from the hurricane and storm damage risk reduction system," he says.

  Protecting the outfall canals from a storm surge has been a concern at least since Hurricane Katrina, when breaches in the 17th Street and London Avenue canals and a gap in the Orleans Avenue floodwall led to extensive flooding and numerous deaths. In the aftermath of Katrina, with Hurricane Rita threatening the city with reflooding, officials from the Corps of Engineers and the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB) decided to place sheet metal at the mouths of the canals to prevent Rita's surge from entering the city.

  As Marcia St. Martin, director of the S&WB, explained at the Dec. 9 City Council meeting, while the sheet metal stopped the lake surge from getting in, it also meant rainwater couldn't be pumped out. The Corps rectified that problem in 2006 when it replaced the sheet metal with the floodgates and added pumps that would remove rainwater from inside the city when the gates were closed because of an approaching storm or another large rain event.

  Sinkler stresses that the ICS were intended to last only five to seven years and were to be used only until permanent pump stations could be completed by 2014. "But we have to operate within what Congress has authorized," he says, referring to Option 1.

  What Option 1 does is erect permanent pump stations with floodgates at the three lakefront canals. Just like the temporary structures, these stations would only pump water when the gates are closed. During normal rain events, S&WB interior stations would pump water through the aboveground canals, discharging at the lakefront. The new stations would be operated and maintained by the S&WB, which estimates the added responsibility will cost the city $10 million annually. Additionally, the Corps says it will provide $90 million in repairs and improvements to the floodwalls on the outfall canals that failed during Hurricane Katrina.

  It is hoped the added funds will allow the safe water elevations — the level water can reach in the canals without fear of breaching — to be increased. Martin, who supports Option 2 or 2A over Option 1, told councilmembers at the December meeting that she isn't confident in this plan.

  "I think the term 'safe water elevation' implies that there is a risk that these walls cannot meet the requirements needed for the citizens of New Orleans and the citizens of Jefferson Parish," St. Martin said.

  Allen says Option 1 was already authorized and funded when Congress requested a technical report on the proposed stations. The idea for Option 2 and Option 2A came out of that report, Allen says. Under Option 2, the new pumps would be used during all rain events whether or not the gates are closed. The floodwalls and levees along the outflow canals would be removed, and the channels would be deepened and paved, allowing water to flow with gravity to the lakefront. Some of the S&WB's interior pump stations would no longer be necessary and would be taken out of the flood control system. Option 2A provides all the features of Option 2 and adds a pumping station in Old Metairie to send water directly to the Mississippi River.

  There has been widespread backing for Options 2 and 2A, including support from the New Orleans City Council, Jefferson Parish Council, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East and the Louisiana congressional delegation.

  Sinkler says these two latter options would take at least 13 years to complete and would be invasive to the city's interior. The Corps would build Option 2 or 2A if authorized, and even if that order comes much later, new pump stations are a component of all three plans.

  "The options are not an either/or," Sinkler says.

  Hummel says building Option 1 doesn't necessarily preclude constructing Option 2 or 2A later on, but it will be expensive to retrofit the Option 1 stations due to different power requirements, instrumentation and pump configuration. Considering the Corps is dependent on Congress for funding and is required to justify its expenditures, Hummel thinks the better approach would be to extend the life of the temporary structures in order to ensure the best option is chosen, not the least costly.

Hummel is very complimentary of the Corps' work following the levee failures. He says nobody could have built the interim structures as efficiently as the Corps did, but he also feels after that kind of execution, a little corrosion protection would extend the structures' usefulness. With more time and with less urgency, a line-item estimate could be conducted for 2 and 2A to determine the true costs of these options. In September 2009, a U.S. House and Senate conference committee rejected an amendment co-sponsored by Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter that would have directed the Corps to conduct a peer-review study of the cost estimates. At the time, Landrieu claimed the Corps had unfairly influenced the vote on the amendment.

  For now, the only figure sited for Option 2A is the one provided by the Corps in its preliminary report, and Hummel finds this not only infuriating but a little unbelievable as well.

  "It just flows off their tongue — '$3.5 billion' — like 'Merry Christmas' does," Hummel says.

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