NEW ORLEANS — The Sewerage & Water Board declared an “extreme emergency” with its newest power turbine in February without informing oversight bodies, with agency leaders failing to mention at a City Council hearing that electrical equipment caught fire and operations staff had to call 9-1-1.
Documents obtained through a public records request last week by S&WB watchdog and long-time agency critic Matt McBride reveal that the fire happened Feb. 23 and knocked out Turbine 6, a critical source of electricity for half the city’s water and drainage pumps.
Turbine 6, or T6, was purchased by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and installed, with a new three-story building to house it, in 2016, at a cost to taxpayers of $31 million. It produces modern 60-cycle power and was designed to act as the primary backup for Entergy during storm seasons.
The Sewerage & Water Board’s three other turbines at its Carrollton Power Plant are decades old and produce an old-fashioned frequency of electricity called 25-cycle power, which Entergy doesn’t provide and is needed to run the older water and drainage pumps in New Orleans.
Those turbines – T1, T4 and T5 – are constantly breaking down. T1 is being decommissioned and T5 was planned for decommissioning after an explosion in its exhaust system in 2019 but was forced back into service. T4 has been the most consistent recently, but it was out-of-service for more than six years and cost more than $43 million to fix.
The S&WB has begun the process of purchasing a new T7. In the meantime, the agency installed brand-new switchgear this year to increase the capacity of T6 from a 15-megawatt generator to a 22-megawatt unit, so it can handle more of the load during rainstorms.
But few were aware that T6 was having its own problems until McBride noticed references to emergency declarations during last week’s S&WB board meeting.
“One of them just referred to a T6 incident with no further explanation,” McBride said. “So, I decided to find out what that was.”
The S&WB responded within a day to McBride’s public records request with a Declaration of Extreme Emergency dated March 3. It says the fire happened on the switchgear Feb. 23 and a member of the operations staff was able to put it out.
S&WB General Superintendent Ron Spooner appeared at the City Council Public Works Committee the very next day to give an update on the power status.
“We had some electrical issues we dealt with yesterday on T6,” Spooner said. “So, the repairs at T6 are underway as of yesterday. We are estimating in five to seven business days we will have that unit back online.”
But in a statement to WWL-TV on Monday, Spooner said it took a whole month to get T6 back online on March 25.
The statement from Spooner said the fire happened when an electrical breaker was installed and a member of the operations team was able to extinguish it. A report from the New Orleans Fire Department shows the emergency call was canceled before the firefighters arrived.
Spooner says nothing on T6 itself was damaged, but three electrical breakers on the switchgear were damaged, so a Declaration of Extreme Emergency was needed to put T6 back in service as quickly as possible, he said.
The emergency declaration is used to avoid having to put the work out to a public bid.
Spooner said the agency is waiting on a report on what caused the fire.
“They have to be upfront with the public because the public can't wait around for a meeting to find out that something happened 10 days ago or two weeks ago or in this case, three months ago,” McBride said.
City Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who sits on the Public Works Committee, says the S&WB’s lack of candor is a constant source of frustration. For example, when the agency’s turbines all failed in March 2017, then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu said “nobody rang the bell” about the power problems before a rainstorm flooded huge portions of the city in August.
“Look, after what happened in 2017, people are going to be consistently skeptical of the power and the pumps,” Giarrusso said. “And so, even if there isn't an issue ultimately, just telling people about it lets them know what's going on and the pathway for getting that fixed.”