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S&WB admits turbine operator overfilled oil tank, likely causing leak on neighboring property

Neighbors first complained about the oily residue falling on their property in 2013 and got no answers.

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board is now acknowledging that operator error likely caused an oil leak at one of its main power turbines earlier this year.

Drops of oil from Turbine 5’s massive exhaust fell on the homes, vehicles and gardens of neighbors on Spruce Street, directly across from the Sewerage and Water Board’s Carrollton Power Plant. Photos from a state inspection in March also showed oily spots on pavement and buildings on the power plant property.

Neighbors first complained about the oily residue falling on their property in 2013 and got no answers. They suspected it was coming from Turbine 5, a 1960s-era gas-powered generator that makes a special type of electricity to run a large portion of the city’s drainage and water pumps.

The Turbine 5 exhaust stack exploded in December 2019 and was going to be retired, but instead it was refurbished at a cost of about $5 million and brought back online in 2021. That’s why neighbors were surprised to see the oily spots reappearing on their property in February and March 2022.

In April, the state Department of Environmental Quality issued a violation against the S&WB, stating the leak was from Turbine 5 and ordering the utility to determine the cause and prevent further leakage.

This week, the DEQ posted a report filed by S&WB General Superintendent Ron Spooner, acknowledging that a turbine operator had overfilled a tank, likely causing the leak.

Spooner’s report to the state environmental agency says the turbine maker, GE, came and looked at the machine March 24 and immediately stated that “overfilling the oil reservoir” could have caused the leak. But when Spooner and Executive Director Ghassan Korban met with neighbors about two weeks later, on April 5, they made no mention of overfilling the tank or operator error.

Korban told WWL-TV this week that he was not aware of the possibility of operator error at the time of the meeting with the neighbors. He said the theory about overfilling the oil tank was still speculation at that point. He told neighbors April 5 that he “suspected” Turbine 5 was causing the leak and they would have GE come back to do a more detailed inspection using a borescope.

That borescope inspection took place on July 20. It was based on that more detailed inspection that Spooner reported to DEQ that “the likely cause of the incident prompting the Department’s inspection was that of operator error in overfilling the oil tank.”

Spooner also reported that the S&WB has asked GE to look at the feasibility of adding a “knock down tank,” a mechanism to prevent overfilling in the future but has not received a response. In the meantime, he reported staff have increased their monitoring of the oil tank and reported it has not been overfilled since the spring.

Korban said in a Thursday interview with WWL-TV that he doesn’t want to simply rely on employees being diligent to avoid another overfilling error. But, he said, the refurbishment of Turbine 5 and its exhaust stack did not include improvements to much of the half-century-old technology, including the manually-filled oil tank.

When neighbors saw Spooner’s report posted online, they sent emails to the utility asking for the operator to be held accountable. But Korban said in an interview with WWL-TV, “Nobody witnessed the guy overfilling the tank, so the only disciplinary action I’m pushing for is training.”

The S&WB said it provided neighbors with 12 free car covers and invited them to file claims for damaged property.

But Ariane Livaudais, a neighbor who filed the original pollution complaint with the DEQ in March, told WWL-TV, “I submitted completed claims form for three of my neighbors on March 21, 2022.  I submitted all my claim documentation (quotes/receipts/completed forms) over 90 days ago and every time I request an update I am told, ‘When a determination has been made you will be notified.’”

She said she and other neighbors did not receive any notification from Sewerage and Water Board but learned about Spooner’s report because it was posted on the DEQ’s public reports website. 

Korban said Spooner’s report to DEQ should help move the claims process forward.

“Now they have what they need, what they’ve been waiting for, which is that report,” he said.

Previous stories:

Investigation: /article/news/investigations/swb-power-plant-neighbors-unhappy-again/289-3128e04d-3e0f-447d-835a-4b6155a75dd3

SWB meets with neighbors: /article/news/investigations/david-hammer/swb-assures-neighbors-its-investigating-oily-residue-falling-on-them/289-01f9e7dd-9976-41a7-a88b-eedd8c4ecaae

DEQ issues violation: /article/news/local/new-orleans-sewerage-and-waterboard-in-violation-for-allowing-oil-to-spill-into-homes/289-20450ea0-c41b-4d0d-b53c-35fd60981b4f

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