West Carrollton residents beset by an oily sheen over their homes, cars and gardens are bearing the brunt of providing drinking water to the rest of the city from a century-old facility hobbled by emergency measures taken after Hurricane Katrina, officials said, and it may be another year before repairs progress enough to make a difference in the problem.
The air-borne chemical that has been settling on residents’ property was tested and revealed to be gear oil from a backup power generator known as Turbine 5, Sewerage and Water Board officials told Carrollton neighbors in a meeting Thursday night. It is only used in emergencies, such as after the fire at the plant that caused a boil-water notice in March or periods of heavy rain and expected flooding.
Neighbors described the gear oil being emitted from the turbine as almost like a mist at times. Jill Stephens said she found her car covered in it, and it is difficult to remove, not something that can simply be rinsed off.
“Sometimes it’s so heavy, it feels like it’s raining,” said Spruce Street resident Janice Stewart, who lives across the street from the turbine.
The chemical analysis that revealed the substance to be gear oil also determined that it is not considered harmful to people, said Ann Wilson, chief of environmental affairs at the Sewerage and Water Board.
“We’re saying it’s safe,” said S&WB Deputy Superintendent Madeline Goddard. “It’s not hazardous at all.”
“If it lands on my salad and I eat it, it’s still not hazardous?” resident Andreas Hoffman replied, as others pointed that nearby James Weldon Johnson Elementary School has a large vegetable garden on campus.
Officials promised to email the report directly to the residents for their own review. Resident Edgar Blanchard said he felt better hearing that the substance is nontoxic, but is reserving judgment until he sees the report for himself.
“I’m just trying to find out what all that stuff was,” Blanchard said. “I’m going to take their word until they send me that paper.”
No easy solutions
In spite of the comfort that the health threat is not imminent, no short-term solutions to the emissions were offered Thursday night. In fact, officials described it as an unfortunate and undesirable cost of continuing to provide drinking water to all of New Orleans using equipment damaged in the effort to drain the flooded city after its levees failed.
The Sewerage and Water Board — which built its own energy system more than 100 years ago and uses it to prevent power loss during extreme weather — currently has four turbines at its facility in west Carrollton that power drainage pumps all over the Eastbank of New Orleans. Turbines 1, 3 and 4 are steam-based and most efficient (Turbine 2 was decommissioned decades ago) but slower to start, while Turbine 5 uses diesel and can be started more quickly in emergencies, but is more expensive to run, officials said.
In the days after Hurricane Katrina, with no clean water to run through them, the Sewerage and Water Board made the decision to operate the steam-based turbines with contaminated water in order to drain the city as quickly as possible. The water receded far faster than the three months predicted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the officials said, but the contaminants damaged the turbines. Now, repairing them and operating them at the same time has become a difficult balancing act, officials said.
“We’re trying to balance how to make sure the entire community has water while we’re rebuilding this vintage system, and working it at the same time,” said Marcia St. Martin, executive director of the S&WB. “We are not oblivious to this. It is a true challenge to us to work through this, and we need your patience.”
Turbine 4, thus, is currently out of service for repairs. Turbine 1 is too small to power the entire city alone, leaving Turbine 3 as the primary source of energy, but it too falters occasionally — requiring backup from the less-efficient Turbine 5.
“We don’t like running it,” Goddard said of Turbine 5. “But if we have to, we will run it.”
The repairs to Turbine 4 are expected to take another year, with an expected completion in March 2014, Goddard said. After it can be Turbine 4 is tested, it can be made the primary generator, and Turbine 3 used as backup — with Turbine 5 only used in extreme situations.
“It’s not going to happen over night. We’re probably talking another year or so,” Goddard said. She added later, “Part of the problem is, they’re huge. They’re really really big, and they take a lot of time to build.”
The noise of Turbine 5 turning on was also described by neighbors as excessive, like “a plane crashing into the house,” said Willow Street resident Camilla Franklin. Officials said that is primarily because of the turbine’s location, directly on Spruce Street with no other buildings to blunt the noise from the neighborhood, but agreed that it is unacceptable and said some sort of soundproofing may be possible.
Neighbors asked about other solutions, such as some sort of structure to shield the neighborhood from the oily mist. Again, no easy answers emerged: Something like an umbrella over the structure to block it would actually slow emissions from the turbine, reducing its ability to generate power, Wilson said. Meanwhile, the droplets are too fine to be stopped by a screen.
Officials promised, however, that they have heard residents’ concerns. S&WB Superintendent Joe Becker promised to put the problem out to the best engineering firms in the country, to determine if some sort of engineering solution can be found for the occasions when Turbine 5 has to be called into service.
After some of those proposals have been gathered, Becker promised to meet again with the residents — a meeting residents said they would look forward to.
“People living on Spruce have to figure out something to protect their homes and automobiles,” said Betty DiMarco of the Carrollton Riverbend Neighborhood Association. “It’s not going to quit raining in New Orleans.”