Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Defective Pumps

And the engineers that love them:
The Army Corps of Engineers, rushing to meet President Bush's promise to protect New Orleans by the start of the 2006 hurricane season, installed defective flood-control pumps last year despite warnings from its own expert that the equipment would fail during a storm, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.


Misgivings about the pumps were chronicled in a May 2006 memo provided to the AP by Matt McBride, a mechanical engineer and flooded-out Katrina victim who, like many in New Orleans, has been closely watching the rebuilding of the city's flood defenses.
Matt McBride got this story going and has posted some of the documents on his blog, Fix the Pumps, along with some background information.

[UPDATE] He has the complete memo now.

The title of one memorandum: “DEFECTIVE PUMPING EQUIPMENT.”

I particularly like this part:
Put simply, if the intent of the contract requirements is to have pump equipment capable of being turned on and used for prolonged periods of time in the event of a hurricane, then I believe the pump equipment will not function as intended.
At least four of those pumps do work today. They passed a test on Saturday:
Four pumps ran without vibration or pulsation during tests Saturday at the 17th Street Canal, leading an Army Corps of Engineers official to declare enough pumps will be functioning on all three New Orleans outfall canals when the 2007 hurricane season begins June 1.

These were the first pumps to be tested since the devices were pulled from the canals at the end of hurricane season last fall to try to fix a serious vibration problem.
They didn’t work almost a year ago. They do work today. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is we never knew there was a problem.

The pumps were promised to work by June 1, 2006, along with the entire levee system being up to pre-Katrina level or better. They didn’t work in June. They didn’t work in July. By September 2006, they still weren’t working to acceptable levels.

But that’s not really the issue. The US Army Corps of Engineers has been honest about *when* the pumps would be working going back to June 2006:
It won't be possible to provide the maximum promised pumping capacity at the new floodgates on the 17th Street and London Avenue canals during what are usually the most active months of hurricane season this year, and perhaps not until the start of the 2007 season, Army Corps of Engineers officials confirmed Wednesday.


Under normal circumstances, Young and St. Germain said, computers are used to design large pumping facilities and solve potential problems before construction begins. But because this was an emergency situation triggered by the failure of canal floodwalls during Katrina, there was no time to model the system beforehand.

Instead, the problems were discovered as the first pumps -- the ones that will provide 2,400 to 2,800 cfs -- were installed and tested in the past few weeks.
Emphasis mine.

We get it. It’s hard work building these pumps, made even harder by the time pressures. We can deal with delays in order to get the job done right.

But make sure you are doing the job right. That last statement – “the problems were discovered as the first pumps… were installed and tested in the past few weeks” – seems to be at odds with the documents, dated May 3 and 4, that Matt McBride has:
It is the opinion of the undersigned that pump equipment supplied by the above cited contract, specifically the pump assemblies and drive units, that are arriving in the field and being installed daily, are not capable of fulfilling their function as intended by the original contract requirements - are defective - and will experience failure should they be tasked to run, under normal use, as would be required in the event of a hurricane.


This opinion is derived from events transpiring during continuous and diligent observance by the undersigned of full sized testing of these pump assemblies and drive units at the manufacturer's Deerfield Beach, Florida facility from the period April 7, 2006 thru May 01, 2006.
Emphasis mine.

The USACE *knew* they were installing pumps that were defective. They didn’t find it out *after* they installed them. They already knew.

The USACE’s Col. Jeffrey Bedey explains why the corps installed pumps they knew were defective:
Although the corps engineering team knew there were vibration problems before the pumps were delivered last year, Bedey said it was better to have the pumps in place in the event of a hurricane than to have no pumps. And despite the vibrations, he said, he would have run the pumps last hurricane season had it been necessary to close the floodgates. Engineers said the pumps probably would have performed below capacity due to the vibration problem.

"There was a certain amount of risk in that, but we figured we were better off putting them in the water and trying to work out the kinks here than not having had them if they were needed," he said.
Defective pumps are better than no pumps. True. But, does anyone remember the corps saying last year that they "knew there were vibration problems before the pumps were delivered"? I don't remember hearing that. That seems like important information.

But, as far as I know, last Saturday was the first time the pumps worked at acceptable levels. Also, I haven’t seen any evidence that they have been tested in the tropical storm conditions they are expected to work under or tested for prolonged use. Maybe that happened in a testing facility somewhere. But I haven’t heard anything.

That’s the problem. I haven’t heard anything. I didn’t hear about the defective pumps last June. I probably would have never heard about them if Matt McBride hadn’t provided the AP with those documents, or put it on his blog. Absent these tests, why should I believe that the USACE has been able to “work out the kinks” in all the pumps?

The funny thing is, I don’t blame the USACE for this. They were given defective pumps by the company that made them. The USACE chose to install them anyway so that the city would have some, if not optimal, pumping capacity if a storm hit. If they installed them or not, we still would have had diminished pump capacity at the 17th Street Canal closure.

We all want an improved levee system fast. But we want the system to work as a system and up to specifications. The 17th Street Canal closure and these pumps are an important part of that system.

Just tell us next time something is defective. We can take it. After all, it’s not the first time a USACE project didn’t work.


Sophmom said...

It's almost too much to take. When will it end? Great post.

spocko said...

You might want to check back with Matt's blog. He has pointed out that the tested pump were New ones. Not the 34 defective ones. Also, the test was only for an hour, not the 12-24 hour test that they would need to prove they won't over heat. And did the downgrade the standards they needed to meet?

The company MWI has deep connections into the WH and the Bush family (Jeb) right now they are saying:

"The allegations in the memo were all dismissed by other inspectors on site, and also by three additional inspectors and five separate independent consultants that were brought in to re-inspect the pumps following the memo.

MWI was chosen in a competitive bid process and because of its world- leading expertise in designing and manufacturing pumps of the size, capacity and durability needed. "

That is the story that they will be sending to the press. Move along folks nothing to see here.

Good post, you want to people to know what is happening to you. What happens to you, can happen to me.

We are all connected.
(especially since I'm in earthquake City!)

Clifton said...

I can't believe they get to build the new system after what happened with the old one. I know Haliburton could use the money and they do good work.

Keep your car gased up my brother.

da po' boy said...

the tested pump were New ones. Not the 34 defective ones

Good point. I missed that in the first AP story:

In the meantime, the Corps has paid MWI $4.5 million for six additional pumps and will use them to troubleshoot the defective ones, Bedey said. Four of those pumps were run on Saturday for more than an hour, and the corps said there were no problems with the test.