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S&WB spent $43 million to repair a turbine it now doesn't plan on using except as a backup

The agency has used drinking water to cool down the steam-powered turbine, which they recently discovered violates Louisiana Department of Health code.

NEW ORLEANS — The S&WB plans to deal with a Louisiana health code violation by using its main steam-powered turbine only as a backup and by phasing out all three of its steam generators.

That move is long overdue for an agency that spends four times as much to make its own power with steam than it costs to buy it from the power company. But it also comes just months after completing a seven-year project restoring the main Turbine No. 4, a maddening effort that initially cost $12 million but topped $31 million a full year before the work was complete.

The Sewerage & Water Board confirmed Thursday that by the time the work was completed in November, the final price tag was $43 million.

It raises questions again about whether the S&WB’s $185 million power plant retrofit project was worth it.

On Tuesday, the agency announced that it discovered its regular process to cool down the steam in its turbines is no longer allowed under state rules. That's because the traditional method uses drinking water moved through a closed-pipe system to cool the steam used in the engines and then puts that cooling water back in the "clear well" for public consumption.

All tests on the city's drinking water showed no contamination, and S&WB officials and both state and city health officials confirmed that this century-old process never jeopardized public safety.

After self-reporting the discovery to the Louisiana Department of Health, the utility was given an official violation notice Tuesday and has 90 days to present a new process that results in no untreated water entering the city's drinking supply.

RELATED: S&WB: Water used to cool steam turbines put back into drinking water

As that plan is ironed out, the S&WB said it will all but stop using Turbine 4, its workhorse for power generation that uses roughly 40 percent of the cooling water.

That should vastly reduce the amount of drinking water that has to be used to cool the steam produced to run four turbines and two steam-activated water pumps, but it also means a lot of money has gone down the drain.

The background on Turbine 4 

In the Eyewitness News "Down the Drain" investigation in 2017, we highlighted how it was taking six years to fix the 1920s-era steam Turbine 4 and costs had almost tripled in during that process.

RELATED: S&WB has made progress, but many problems remain a year after WWL-TV investigation

Since then, it took another year to finish the repairs and ended up costing more than a brand new turbine to fix. And now, because it is so inefficient and uses most of the available cooling water, the plan is to use it as little as possible.

S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban has only been at the helm for six months. He told Eyewitness News that he agrees with the "Down the Drain" investigation that found the turbine repairs were a waste of money.

How did we get here?

Under former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the city received $185 million from FEMA following Hurricane Katrina to fix the S&WB's old power plant.

RELATED: Report: Turbine repair costs now exceed price of buying a new one

In 2012, the decision was made to use part of the money to refurbish the old turbines, despite reports as far back as 1994 showing the city needed to transition away from steam turbines to other sources of power, such as gas-fired turbines.

 The 1994 report that recommended replacing the turbines over 20 years was written by consultant CH2M Hill. That didn’t happen, but nearly 20 years later, that company was the one hired to manage the power plant retrofit project.

How can this be resolved?

Korban said the agency's plan is to use more Entergy power.

However, in trying to get more Entergy power the S&WB will need a more reliable power delivery system.

That requires building a new substation at the S&WB plant; and Korban said that would cost $40-50 million more and take five more years to start and finish.

Ultimately, that requires money and time that the S&WB does not have.

RELATED: WWL-TV's Down the Drain investigation

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Sewerage & Water Board could not provide the total cost of refurbishing turbine 4 by WWL-TV's deadline Tuesday. The agency confirmed the $43 million price tag Thursday.