In The News › Boil-water advisory delay baffles New Orleans residents

Boil-water advisory delay baffles New Orleans residents

By Richard Rainey
The Times-Picayune

New Orleanians went about their usual morning routines Monday, showering, brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, unaware that a short, sudden drop in water pressure might have compromised the city’s water supply. The Sewerage & Water Board, which manages the city’s potable water system, knew about the glitch a little after 8:30 a.m., but didn’t tell east bank residents until 1 p.m. that they should boil their water to guard against harmful bacteria.

Water board officials downplayed the snafu, saying that the health risks posed by the pressure drop were minimal. But critics noted that by the time the water board finally told the public about the problem, it’s likely most people had used water from a faucet, rendering the S&WB’s afternoon warning effectively pointless.

“If the risks are serious enough to justify a boil-water advisory, it’s hard to understand how they can wait three-and-a-half hours to issue it,” said Janet Howard, executive director of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a government watchdog group studying the S&WB. “They really need to examine their communication policy.”

The pressure drop began with a mechanical failure at the S&WB’s in-house power plant on South Claiborne Avenue. Maintenance crews were swapping out two steam boilers that help generate the agency’s unusual form of electricity, known as 25-cycle, when power shut off. The outage lasted less than three minutes, but gauges at the plant showed the system’s pressure plummet to 20 pounds per square inch.

Normal pressure hovers around 68 psi, officials said. Real danger of contamination begins around 15 psi, when pressure is low enough to let bacteria infiltrate the system. After some customers around the city reported pressure had dropped lower than 20 psi, officials with the state Department of Health and Hospitals advised the S&WB to issue a warning, S&WB Executive Director Marcia St. Martin said.

“This is such a serious event on both sides of the equation,” she said. “One, you don’t want to overreact too quickly. Other times, you don’t want to under-react too sharply.”

Chances are small that the lines are contaminated, but officials are testing the water to be sure. Results take about 24 hours, so the boil advisory won’t be lifted until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest, St. Martin said. Officials are measuring the colonies of coliforms, a group of mostly harmless bacteria that indicate whether dangerous bacteria or viruses may be in the water. Such contaminants are killed only by boiling. Filters in refrigerators, faucets and Brita-style pitchers do not suffice, health officials have said.

Officials said it was safe to bathe or shower, but warned against ingesting any water without boiling it first. “This is very precautionary,” St. Martin said. “Our gut is that the water’s fine.”

Without a citywide monitoring system, the S&WB has no way of knowing about low water pressure throughout the water system’s 1,600 miles of pipe except through calls from customers. Busy signals plagued the S&WB’s customer service phone line shortly after the water pressure dropped Monday morning. St. Martin said officials fielded calls of very low pressure from eastern New Orleans, Gentilly and the upper 9th Ward, among other places.

The power outage that triggered the advisory is the latest in a slew of similar failures that have plagued the S&WB’s antiquated power plant since Hurricane Katrina flooded it seven years ago. “The power generation system has not been at 100 percent since 2005,” St. Martin said. “We are constantly executing contracts and doing work in order to restore the system back to its pre-Katrina functionality.”

The plant failed dramatically in November 2010 when one of the boilers ruptured. S&WB crews managed to regain power within 10 minutes, but problems restarting some of the water pumps led to a 41-hour boil advisory. Similar to Monday’s incident, the S&WB took more than three hours to issue the warning. By then, it was 2 a.m., and City Hall would not spread the news throughout the city until 8 a.m. the next morning. The S&WB and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration put in new protocols afterward to better handle such late-night emergencies.

A turbine in the plant failed a month later, but a backup pump saved the city from another boil advisory that time.

The S&WB also has to contend with glitches in the electricity supplied by Entergy, which generates more conventional 60-cycle power. Water pressure dropped at least four times last year when Entergy lines failed, though not every case resulted in a boil advisory.

Officials said Monday’s incident had little in common with what happened in November 2010. The lengthy consultation with state officials, not faulty after-hours policies, led to the latest delay in alerting the public, St. Martin said.

After a string of outages, Landrieu has made fixing the plant a top priority of his administration. A $12.5 million project authorized by FEMA to replace two massive steam pumps by 2014 is already under way, St. Martin said. And Landrieu is close to securing $141 million in hazard mitigation grants from the federal government to repair the power plant and harden it against hurricanes and other natural disasters. Expecting that will be a done deal in the next month or so, St. Martin said the S&WB has already begun advertising for designers and engineers to map out the renovations.

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