NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has found the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board in violation of the state code for allowing turbine oil to spew onto neighbors’ homes, vehicles and gardens in the Carrollton area.
The state agency issued a Notice of Deficiency on April 18, concluding that turbine oil was indeed leaking from one of the old, often-broken power turbines at the S&WB’s Carrollton Power Plant for weeks, confirming neighbors’ concerns first reported by WWL-TV in early March.
The DEQ notice gives the S&WB 30 days to respond. It also cites the local water and sewer agency for failing to clean up its mess over the last few months.
“The (Sewerage & Water Board) facility failed to clean up used oil (MOBIL DTE 732) that, according to Mr. (Sam) Lewis, had been releasing for weeks due to a leak from Turbine 5,” the notice says.
Lewis is a turbine operator who originally told DEQ officials about the turbine oil leak during an inspection in early March, which came in response to a complaint filed by neighbor Arianne Livaudais. But the S&WB leadership is still not ready to accept that the turbine oil identified by Lewis is what’s been affecting the neighbors.
“It’s important to note that LDEQ did not collect any field samples to confirm that the turbine oil matched the stains the inspectors observed in the neighborhood,” the S&WB said Tuesday in a statement. “Although it is not currently confirmed that turbine oil is being released into the environment, (the S&WB) is conducting an internal investigation.”
Mobil, like all oil manufacturers, publishes a “Safety Data Sheet” for each of its products, disclosing the ingredients and potential human health risks of exposure. DTE 732 is listed as “minimally toxic,” meaning it is not generally hazardous. The Safety Data Sheet says, “Excessive exposure may result in eye, skin or respiratory irritation.”
A month ago, S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban and General Superintendent Ron Spooner met with a handful of neighbors on Spruce Street and assured them they were trying to pinpoint the problem and address it.
At the time, the officials said they believed their power equipment was the source of the leak, but they weren’t ready to say what it was or precisely where it originated. They said experts from GE, the maker of Turbine 5, would need to come to New Orleans to video the insides of the turbine and fix any leaks.
“We are committed to finding the cause of any potential discharge of oily fluids and have sought additional technical assistance from General Electric (GE) in determining a root cause analysis,” the S&WB statement continued. “GE has scheduled a borescope inspection on Turbine 5 for the week of May 23.”
Turbine 5 is a 58-year-old gas-powered generator used to run most of the city’s drainage and water pumps, but the stack exploded in 2019 and was completely refurbished in 2021.
The agency has agreed to notify neighbors any time Turbine 5 is run, and Korban said they would try to limit its usage as much as possible. Neighbors are also asking the agency to purchase covers for them to protect their cars, but the S&WB has not committed to that.
If Turbine 5 isn’t used to send a special kind of electricity to the city’s older water and drainage pumps during storms, the agency could be forced to use large electro-motive diesel generators, or EMDs, as a main source of power. The last time that was necessary was last year, and much of the surrounding neighborhood was battered with ear-splitting noise from the EMDs in the middle of the night.
Korban has repeatedly said there’s no way to install a sound barrier to address that issue. He says the only way to solve the overall power problem is to buy a new gas-fired turbine and build a permanent substation to deliver electricity directly from Entergy that won’t be so susceptible to cutting out in high winds.
Both of those efforts took significant hits in the last few months. Entergy pulled out of an agreement to front $30 million for the substation project. In response, the City Council allocated $30 million from federal stimulus funds for the project in February, but Korban acknowledged the construction is likely to be delayed past 2023.
The S&WB also selected a bidder in February to purchase a new Turbine 7, to replace the century-old Turbine 1, a smaller steam-powered generator that is being decommissioned after repeatedly breaking. It would also take the pressure off Turbines 4 and 5, which are working but continue to break down at a cost of more than $50 million to repair them in recent years.
But last month, the S&WB board rescinded the first bid awarded to Solar Turbines and put the Turbine 7 project back out to bid, further delaying a process that takes about 15 months to complete, making it less likely the replacement turbine could be purchased, delivered, installed and hooked up to run pumps across the city in time for the 2023 hurricane season.