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'The whole system could fail' - S&WB director paints dire picture for President Biden

The aging system, with some equipment over 100 years old, has received hundreds of millions in taxpayer aid in the past 20 years with little to show for it.

NEW ORLEANS — President Joe Biden visited the nerve center of New Orleans’ decrepit water, sewer and drainage systems Thursday, holding up the Sewerage and Water Board’s Carrollton Water Plant as a poster child of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

Biden was given a tour of the facility by Sewerage and Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban and Mayor LaToya Cantrell and he was told that the city’s antiquated system is an “average of 100 years old,” and, in the words of Korban, “the whole system could fail.”

“It looks fairly nice on the surface,” Korban told Biden of the old-style plant, “but what lies beneath is a very antiquated and old system and it has served its life. Every day that goes by, the risk of failure increases.”

Korban says a system failure could keep the city from providing safe drinking water. He also talked about higher standards coming soon for drinking water safety and he said “without making significant improvements in how we purify water, we will not be able to meet those standards."

The standards are being pushed to protect citizens from so-called forever chemicals, also known as PFAS, being found in a lot of municipal drinking water systems.

The Sewerage and Water Board has been working with FEMA to improve how it pulls its drinking water in from the Mississippi River. But a large rake that runs on tracks on the bottom of the water intake basin to remove sediment is still antiquated.

Korban told Biden that if he could, he would build a modern water filtration system for the next 50 to 75 years.

Biden is promoting a $2.3 trillion infrastructure and public works project called the American Jobs Plan, touting it as a sort-of Works Progress Administration for the 21st century. Republicans, including Louisiana Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, have assailed it for only dedicating a small portion to traditional infrastructure like roads, bridges and water systems and focusing too much on green energy projects and what Kennedy called “new welfare and reparations.”

But the White House says $932 billion is clearly earmarked for infrastructure, including $111 billion specifically for water systems, primarily focusing on replacing lead pipes that can create health problems like those seen half a decade ago in Flint, Mich.

Lead pipes do make up a portion of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board’s underground water delivery system, and a 2017 report by the city’s Inspector General criticized the S&WB for failing to warn residents about the dangers. The Sewerage and Water Board has consistently said that the drinking water is safe, it uses an additive to make sure lead can’t get into the water and it replaces older lead pipes whenever it finds them.

But the larger issues at the Sewerage and Water Board relate to unreliability, especially in the electric power it needs to pump drinking water to customers and sewage and drainage up and out of the bowl-shaped city.

In a briefing for national media traveling with the president, the White House noted the Carrollton Water Plant suffers from water main breaks and equipment failures and “would benefit from water infrastructure investment.”

Extended coverage - President Biden tours S&WB plant

There was no mention of the hundreds of millions of dollars federal taxpayers have already sent to the Sewerage and Water Board over the last decade.

That includes more than $200 million for water and sewer line repairs that sat unspent for more than a decade after Hurricane Katrina.

It includes another $185 million used to fix 100-year-old power and pumping equipment that keeps on breaking.

It includes $80 million spent on more emergency repairs after the drainage system failed again in 2017.

And WWL-TV’s “Down the Drain” investigation in 2017 found another $6 million was paid to a consultant managing the Power Plant upgrades for costs that FEMA called "not reasonable."

That's why Kennedy says he can't look taxpayers in the eye and ask them to send more money to the Sewerage and Water Board.

“As your station has documented, part of the reasons it's broken is because they've had people running it... you wouldn't hire to run a hot dog stand,” Kennedy said. “Number two, a lot of the money has been wasted. And number three, some of the money has been stolen. And it's a fair question to the mayor and the council, if we give them more money, how are they going to keep it from getting stolen or wasted?”

RELATED: S&WB turbine explosion likely caused by human error, analysis finds

RELATED: S&WB neighbor calls for noise fines in testy exchange with Mayor Cantrell

While there have been some cases over the years of theft by Sewerage and Water Board employees, most infamously involving copper pipe fittings, there has not been a lot of proven theft at the agency. The real issue here is waste.

For example, WWL-TV found the agency spent $43 million to restore a 100-year-old turbine that was out of service for six years, only to have it break again and be out for almost another year. That steam-powered turbine from the 1920s, Turbine 4, was expected to be back in service this week for the first time since the summer of 2020.

The station’s investigation showed the water utility could have saved tens of millions of dollars by purchasing new equipment rather than by repeatedly trying to fix century-old machines. In 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent only $31 million to build and install a brand-new turbine and build a brand-new building for it at the Carrollton Plant.

Turbine 4 and the plant’s other large power turbine, Turbine 5, have been out of service for extended periods, forcing the Sewerage and Water Board to run noisy diesel generators to drain the city when it rains. Neighbors have complained that dangerous noise levels violate city ordinances, are waking them up at night and could be damaging their ears.

Another major problem when power to the system’s water pumps fail is a lack of pressure in the drinking water lines, forcing boil water advisories to protect customers from bacteria that can build in the water if it’s not flowing fast enough.

Kennedy received unanimous support last month in the Senate for an amendment ordering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to gather information about boil water advisories and determine why they have been happening so often in Louisiana. Other senators, including Democrats, spoke in support of Kennedy's amendment and thanked him for drawing their attention to a problem that they learned was also plaguing their states.

“I think the EPA can help us,” Kennedy said. “I'm not asking the EPA to take any action yet. I just want to step in and let's find out why. Why are we having so damn many of them?”

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated May 7, 2021, to clarify that April's boil water advisory tracking amendment was authored by Kennedy alone and received unanimous support in the U.S. Senate.