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S&WB: New Orleans' drainage system severely hampered going into hurricane season

Ghassan Korban said there was “no way” to replace the 20 megawatts of power provided by Turbine 5 without purchasing a replacement turbine for about $20 million.

NEW ORLEANS — The executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board called the loss of a key power-generating turbine “devastating” to the city’s drainage system during the board’s monthly meeting Wednesday.

Ghassan Korban said crews have not been able to restore Turbine 5 since an explosion disabled it in December, leaving the city’s drainage system severely hampered going into hurricane season.

He said there was “no way” to replace the 20 megawatts of power provided by Turbine 5 without purchasing a replacement turbine for about $20 million.

Korban said the agency can’t afford that cost right now.

It had planned to have an additional $10 million for improving power generation using the “Fair Share” tourism tax revenues negotiated by Mayor LaToya Cantrell last year. But thanks to the total shutdown of the tourism industry during the coronavirus shutdown, “we all know that’s not going to happen in the budgeted way,” Korban said Wednesday.

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A WWL-TV “Down the Drain” investigation in 2017 found board documents showing the S&WB passed up an opportunity to purchase a brand new, 20-megawatt gas-fired turbine for $16 million and ended up spending $31 million fixing a 96-year-old steam-powered generator instead. That decision was made under previous S&WB leadership during former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s tenure.

The latest loss of 20 megawatts of self-produced power was acutely felt last Friday, just after midnight, when lightning strikes took out the power supply to three major drainage pumps in the Broadmoor neighborhood just as 2.5 inches of rain fell on the area in an hour.

Streets near the pumping station filled with more than 2 feet of water while the pumps were inoperable, flooding out several cars. It took 45 minutes for pump station crews to restore power after the lightning strikes, Korban told board members.

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The lightning disabled two overhead power lines provided by the utility company, Entergy New Orleans, and one owned by the Sewerage & Water Board, which is used to carry electricity across town after it’s been converted to the old-fashioned, low-frequency power the board uses to run many of the older drainage pumps.

Korban said a lot of those problems with overhead power lines could be avoided if the S&WB and Entergy can work out a deal to build a dedicated substation at the board’s Carrollton Power Plant to supply higher-quality power directly. The S&WB has already started spending $7 million for the preliminary phase of the substation project.

“The most realistic option at this point is to work with Entergy,” Korban told the board.

In February, Korban told the City Council's Public Works Committee that they were looking to replace Turbine 5. At the time, he told the committee the board's insurance company and hired consultants were investigating what caused Turbine 5 to explode, injuring three S&WB workers.

The agency has been reorganizing some of its backup power to address the loss of Turbine 5, which is about 60 years old. But without Turbine 5's old-fashioned 25-cycle electricity, the agency must rely more on equipment to convert modern 60-cycle power to the lower frequency.

An overhead feeder line that was supposed to deliver converted 25-cycle power from a frequency changer at Peoples Avenue across town to Drainage Pump Station 1 in Broadmoor was knocked out by lightning during Friday's flash flood.

Meanwhile, the board approved a new $4.8 million maintenance labor contract with JEI Solutions, a company owned by the brother of the S&WB finance director. JEI was the low bidder for the contract, but a competitor, Gee Cee, challenged the bid because of the direct family connection between JEI owner Wade Joseph and S&WB Finance and Planning Director Dexter Joseph.

The board’s finance committee chairman, Poco Sloss, acknowledged the contract challenge by Gee Cee at Wednesday’s board meeting without ever mentioning the Joseph brothers or saying what the alleged conflict was. Sloss said the board had received an opinion from the Louisiana Board of Ethics saying it was OK to hire JEI Solutions as the low bidder.

S&WB special counsel Yolanda Grinstead said Gee Cee filed a temporary restraining order in civil court to try to block the contract with JEI, but it hadn’t been properly served or executed by a judge yet, so there was nothing preventing the board from approving the contract.

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