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S&WB power plant neighbors unhappy again

“Give us a break,” he said as he surveyed the oily residue on his porch and pickup truck. “Let us know what's going on."

NEW ORLEANS — As the Sewerage & Water Board spends millions to fix the outdated power equipment that runs the city’s critical drainage and drinking water pumps, neighbors of the agency’s Carrollton Power Plant say their quality of life is going down the drain.

A report by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality indicates oil leaking from one of the old power turbines at the plant began showering neighbors across Spruce Street at least nine years ago.

'You're doing wrong'

And earlier this month, another LDEQ inspection found an oil leak in one of the turbines may be responsible for more spots of oily residue appearing on neighbors’ vehicles, front stoops, patio furniture and vegetable gardens.

And that’s just the latest ignominy the Sewerage & Water Board’s neighbors have suffered in recent years, with little relief in sight.

“Sewerage & Water Board, you're doing wrong,” said Johnny Wilson, who lives directly across Spruce Street from five hulking electro-motive diesel generators that were installed in 2018 in response to the total failure of the turbines during the Aug. 5, 2017 flood.

“Give us a break,” he said as he surveyed the oily residue on his porch and pickup truck. “Let us know what's going on. Talk to us. Help us out with our property over here. Do something toward us. You should. We've been here, being dumped on too long, much too long.”

Wilson should know. He has lived in the same house for decades and never let the power plant across the street keep him from enjoying his front porch.

“This is my house. I'm supposed to be able to sit on the porch. I am supposed to be able to enjoy my porch, every inch of my property, but they’re taking the joy out of it,” he said. “We don't know whether or not we’re here, ruining our health.”

His main concern is a 64-year-old gas-fired turbine, Turbine 5, and its towering exhaust stack.

The Sewerage & Water Board spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to fix Turbine 5 after it failed in March 2017 and much of the city flooded in an August rainstorm. But it was back in service only briefly before the stack exploded in December 2019. Two workers were rushed to the hospital and windows blew out across the neighborhood.

“I was even sitting in the yard when the turbine blew up,” Wilson said. “That knocked me over, back in the yard.”

With Turbine 5 and the even older Turbine 4 out of commission for much of 2021, the EMD backup generators were forced into service as a main source of power for the pumps last hurricane season.

That brought ear-splitting noise to the neighborhood. WWL-TV tested the noise levels in March 2021 and measured readings consistently over 90 decibels. Extended exposure to noise over 85 decibels can cause hearing damage.

The EMDs had been installed right along the fence line on Spruce Street, and the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association pushed for some kind of sound barrier or buffer. In a series of emails, Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban promised restore the front-line turbines and limit the use of the EMDs, but repeatedly said no sound buffer would be possible.

“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,” Wilson said.

In 2020, Korban announced the Sewerage and Water Board finally had given up on Turbine 5 and would be replacing it with a new Turbine 7, scheduled for purchase and installation in 2023. But the agency changed course in 2021 and completely refurbished Turbine 5 and its exhaust stack.

And now, the oily droplets are back.

Ariane Livaudais lives three doors down from Wilson. She filed a complaint on March 3 with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

On March 4, a turbine operator confirmed to DEQ that oil was, indeed, leaking.

“That was the first concrete evidence that we had that someone admitted that, yes, it was coming from their property, and it was coming onto ours,” said Livaudais, who just started using a car cover to protect her vehicle from the greasy spots. 

But the DEQ report also raises new questions. It quotes a turbine operator saying there’s an oil leak in Turbine 6, by far the newest of the Sewerage & Water Board’s five turbines, installed just six years ago in a newly built standalone structure.

The exhaust vents on that building face away from the homes across Spruce Street. So, Wilson and other neighbors believe the DEQ report may have mislabeled Turbine 5 as Turbine 6 because they say they can see the oily spots appearing whenever Turbine 5 is running and exhaust is coming out of the stack.

Livaudais and other residents have been trying to get a meeting with Sewerage & Water Board ever since she filed the complaint to the DEQ, so far to no avail. They say they are trying to work through the process, but they are quickly losing patience.

“It's a necessary service that they're providing. I understand. We don't want people flooding,” Livaudais said. “But at the same time, I don't know. They never seem to ever reach out to us. (It’s) always us chasing, chasing, chasing.”

Sewerage & Water Board spokeswoman Grace Birch said the agency has agreed to a meeting with neighbors next week at Wilson's house and is working with its insurance company to handle property damage claims.

She also said the agency is working with turbine maker GE to schedule more diagnostic tests on Turbine 5 in the next 60 to 90 days.

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