KENNER, La. — Kenner's top building official says he warned contractors about the potential for plumbing problems when construction began on the new, billion-dollar terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport.
An email exchange from 2016 shows that the contractor asked to cut back on plumbing hangers to keep costs down. A city inspector would later blame the plumbing problems on a shortage of those same hangers.
Hangers are stainless steel straps that wrap around pipes and connect to the concrete foundation of buildings to ensure that if the soil sinks underneath the building, the pipes don’t go with it.
An internal city auditor for Kenner looked into the permitting and inspection process for the North Terminal project in recent months as contractors feverishly work to repair more than 100 breaks in sewage pipes underneath it. That city inspector blames a shortage of hangers for those breaks.
Airport officials are pushing to open the state-of-the-art facility sometime this Fall, trying to avoid a fifth set back in the terminal’s grand opening.
After an investigative report by WWL-TV exposed the massive holes contractors cut into the foundation to repair the breaks, citizens questioned Kenner Code Enforcement Director James Mohamad about the plumbing problems at Kenner’s City Council meeting last week.
“I'm proud to sit here and tell you that we warned them what was going to happen. I'm confident in my decisions that I made going to the Mayor and telling the Mayor and the council what was going to happen. And we have the documentation and the proof that we warned them,” Mohamad told the council.
Kenner’s internal audit was based largely on an interview with Mohamad and an email exchange between the contractor, a joint venture called Hunt-Gibbs-Boh-Metro, and 2016 Kenner Code Enforcement Director Stephen Petit.
“Kenner officials insisted subsidence would in fact occur with the soil beneath the terminals, but were told the cost to support the pipelines every two feet would be cost prohibitive, and the national minimum standard of five feet per hanger should be upheld,” wrote Adam Campo, Director of Risk, Insurance, Audit and Compliance for the City of Kenner, in his report.
Airport officials seem confident the repairs will take care of the problem, saying the work is 80% complete, and on track for completion at the end of September. That date is a month later than they initially gave for completion of the repairs.
The audit was based largely on an interview with Mohamad and an email exchange between the contractor, a joint venture called Hunt-Gibbs-Boh-Metro, and 2016 Kenner Code Enforcement Director Stephen Petit.
“Kenner officials insisted subsidence would in fact occur with the soil beneath the terminals, but were told the cost to support the pipelines every two feet would be cost prohibitive, and the national minimum standard of five feet per hanger should be upheld,” writes Adam Campo, Director of Risk, Insurance, Audit and Compliance for the City of Kenner, in his report.
Engineers put a shorter length of pipe in between hangers when they are trying to add extra support.
“It was costing too much to put them at two-foot centers. It was costing a lot of manpower to have those hangers tied into the slab as well,” Mohamad said.
HGBM’s construction manager did not return email seeking comment and a representative for Square Button Consulting, the plumbing subcontractor listed on inspection records, said they simply installed the hangers and pipes to HGBM and the architect’s specs.
The project manager for the terminal construction said last month there are approximately 15,000 linear feet of sewage pipe underneath the terminal. Experts say hangers cost approximately $6 each. That would mean an additional $22,000 in materials, plus the cost of added labor to increase the number of hangers.
But Mohammad felt so strongly that it was necessary he asked the Kenner City Council to pass an emergency ordinance requiring hangers every 24 inches when contractors are building in “poor soil conditions.” The council did, with then-Mayor Michael Sigur signing off on it on Dec. 1, 2016.
That was too late for the North Terminal project. Mohamad said contractors began construction following the city’s instructions with hangers every two feet. An email sent from the engineering firm Kenner hired to review the airport project, Meyer Engineers Ltd., in September said the city was requiring the two-foot hangers. The emails show that requirement led the contractor, HGBM to ask for a meeting and ultimately a compromise of hangers installed every three feet. Kenner agreed to it.
Now, Mohamad said, when his inspectors are checking the pipe repairs they are seeing breaks in the sections of pipe with hangers every three feet.
“It's not being supported,” he said.
Airport officials have said they’re continuing to investigate what caused the pipes to break and that the contractor is currently paying for the repairs.
Last month, in an interview with WWL-TV, Project Manager Chris Spann said, “I don't believe it was an initial installation. There's been two years’ worth of construction since that sewer line was installed so any number of things can happen at that point from equipment driving over the top of it or any of it could be anything and I don't want to say too much because right now we're looking into it.”
But Mohamad blames the hangers and said he thinks the current repairs are just the start of the terminal’s plumbing problems.
“It's going to be an ongoing problem for the life of the project. It's not going away anytime soon. They're spending more money now in repairs than if they would've listened to us from the get-go,” he said.
Spann admitted the soil has already subsided anywhere from 6-to-10 inches in spots underneath the terminal.
Auditors took pictures of the pipe problems at the new terminal as part of their investigation that show sheared pipe and substantial subsidence. They show a part of the sidewalk broken away from the building where the ground is sinking, a gap between the soil and the metal frame of the foundation where pipe repairs are being made and a utility box on the tarmac that looks like it’s sinking into the ground, leaving a gap with the surrounding concrete.
Mohamad and industry experts said that level of subsidence is not normal, even on industrial projects of this magnitude.
But the terminal building itself is secure, stabilized by hundreds of pilings driven deep into the ground. Even Mohamad called it one of the “best-built buildings in Southeast Louisiana.”
Despite that, he warns problems for the parts of the airport that are not supported by pilings will likely persist into the future.