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Noise reaching dangerous levels at S&WB power plant, neighbors demand change

“I assure you if there is anything we could do in the immediate future, we would. Sadly, there’s nothing we can to minimize the amount of noise,” Korban said.

NEW ORLEANS — Johnny Wilson sat on his front porch as a line of heavy rain showers threatened to roll in Wednesday.

His favorite spot to enjoy his retirement ruined by ear-splitting noise at the Sewerage & Water Board’s power plant across the street.

“They need to stop it and realize we are human that's over here, that's living here, that had this house just as long as they had that Sewerage and Water Board,” he shouted over the incessant racket. “I got earplugs in the house and if I'm gonna get any kind of sleep at night, I got to put them in. And that's bad.”

The noise is reaching dangerous levels at the Sewerage & Water Board’s Carrollton Power Plant, and the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association is pushing the utility to do something to mitigate the problem.

The association sent the Sewerage & Water Board a letter Friday demanding answers, a week after questioning the utility’s new general superintendent about why no noise barriers have been installed.

Their demands were echoed by City Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who said, “Sewerage & Water Board needs to mitigate the noise.”

At the Sewerage & Water Board’s monthly meeting Wednesday, agency Executive Director Ghassan Korban said he understood the way the increased noise was affecting neighbors’ quality of life, but insisted his hands are tied.

“I assure you if there is anything we could do in the immediate future, we would. Sadly, there’s nothing we can to minimize the amount of noise,” Korban said.

But an agency spokeswoman tempered that Friday, saying the agency was teaming with the city Health Department to take sound readings early next week and would “reassess” their options for mitigating the noise.

WWL-TV used a noise meter to measure sustained sound levels at or above 90 decibels Wednesday as the Sewerage & Water Board ran four electro-motive diesel generators, or EMDs, in preparation for the heavy rain.

That’s the equivalent of the noise right next to a running motorcycle, and it’s four times louder than the normal volume of a TV or radio. Extended exposure for eight hours can damage human eardrums.

While it hasn’t been that constant, noise at that level has become more common for longer periods at the power plant recently. That’s because the Sewerage & Water Board’s ability to power its drainage pumps is severely limited.

Turbines 4 and 5, the main sources of electricity to power about half the city’s drainage pumps – the oldest pumps run on an old-fashioned, 25-cycle electricity – have been offline for months. The Sewerage & Water Board is promising their return in early May and mid-June, respectively.

But in the meantime, a smaller steam-powered generator, Turbine 1, has been pressed into constant service with a faulty steam vacuum seal, which requires a noisy piece of machinery called a “vacuum hog” running 24/7 and emitting about 75 decibels.

The EMDs were installed in 2017 as emergency backup power, but now they are needed whenever it rains as the principal source of electricity for the 25-cycle pumps.

The neighborhood association noted the Sewerage & Water Board promised noise mitigation when it first installed the EMDs in December 2017. A technical memo from a S&WB contractor in August 2019 stated the noise from the EMDs exceeded allowed levels.

And still, the agency has pinned all its hopes on repairing Turbines 4 and 5 in the next couple of months.

Turbine 4, a 100-year-old steam-powered generator that was out for repairs for six years between 2012 and 2018 at a cost of more than $40 million, is supposed to be fixed by May 3.

After WWL-TV asked for an accounting of those repairs, the Sewerage & Water Board sent a letter from a Kenner contractor performing the Turbine 4 repairs, stating the work would cost about $900,000 and take 20-22 weeks.

When WWL-TV asked the Sewerage & Water Board about the time frame, a spokeswoman said that should have said 20-22 weeks from when repairs began in January.

Another public record obtained by WWL-TV laid out expenses incurred so far to repair Turbine 5, which was knocked out of service when its exhaust tower exploded in December 2019. The work began with demolition of the tower in October 2020, and the demolition and repairs to the turbine and its controls are expected to cost $7.6 million.

But the records show the agency has only been invoiced for $2.1 million of it so far, leaving $5.5 million still to be charged and three months to complete the work on the current time frame.

Korban has stuck by that time frame, insisting the extended use of the noisy EMDs is only temporary. That was no comfort to Wilson.

“Temporary? I don't care if it's a day and a half! It's too long for that kind of noise!” he said.

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