A malfunctioning turbine continues to intermittently spray oil onto homes near the Sewerage & Water Board’s Carrollton plant.
At least six times this year, dime-size droplets have covered vehicles, steps, lawn furniture, and siding on houses, as documented by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
In recent years, neighbors have dealt with a turbine explosion that shook houses and shattered windows, as well as five trailer-size emergency generators so loud that – for two years – people couldn’t hear routine conversations even inside their houses.
All the neighbors want is for the Sewerage & Water Board to work with them, they say.
“I don’t want to sue them. I want them to fix their problems,” said Mike LeBlanc, who lives across from the Carrollton plant on Spruce Street, where his car and truck have been parked during multiple oil-sprays.
LeBlanc worries most about the effect of oil raining down on them repeatedly. “They say it ain’t harmful, but we don’t know,” he said.
The problem dates back at least a decade. In 2013, neighbors told the Uptown Messenger that they’d found an oily sheen on their properties. After a lull, the leaks began again in March 2022. LDEQ issued a compliance order in July of that year, requiring the Board to stop the oil emissions.
The source of the oil is Turbine 5, known as T5, a natural-gas-fired generator manufactured in 1960 by General Electric and installed at the Carrollton plant soon afterwards. This obsolete but important unit creates a specialized energy, 25-cycle power, that S&WB needs to run some of its water and drainage pumps.
The turbine spits the oil out of its 85-foot exhaust stack, which towers over the front porches of houses across the street, on Spruce.
But no one has determined why the leaks happen.
The Board’s chosen solution — a custom-made “knockdown vessel” proposed more than a year ago by GE — won’t be ready until about eight months from now, at the end of March 2024, a S&WB spokesperson said.
Seven oil-sprayings reported in 2023
This year, T5 sprayed oil onto blocks near the plant on April 8-9, April 18, April 30, May 1, May 17, and June 21, according to LDEQ reports. Neighbors also found oil droplets during the second week of July, they said.
While the Board self-reported the May 1 incident, all of the others – as well as the incident in March 2022 – were reported to LDEQ by Spruce Street resident Ariane Livaudais.
The oil leaves stains, said Livaudais, who repainted a “polka-dotted” porch railing and trim across the front of her house.
At first, in an August 2022 response to LDEQ, Board administrators attributed the March 2022 discharge to “operator error,” likely from overfilling a reservoir holding oil that lubricates the turbine’s bearings. In that scenario, the extra oil entered the exhaust from the top of the reservoir through a fan called a “vapor extractor” – which normally only moves air – and exhausted out the main stack.
In December 2022, the reservoir was refilled and the turbine ran 20 times without any reported oil incidents.
By the April 2023 spraying incident, the S&WB had eliminated overfilling as a possible explanation. “We don’t know the cause,” said Interim General Superintendent Ron Spooner in April, when he described to the board GE’s suggestion: retrofitting Turbine 5 with a custom-made part called a “knockdown vessel,” which would drop the oil out of the turbine’s exhaust before it goes out of the stack.
That vessel, if installed as planned by March 2024, would replace a different “structure” that used to sit on top of the exhaust stack, playing a similar role. It “was knocked off during a hurricane and never replaced,” according to GE.
Residents haven’t been told whether the vessel design has been formally commissioned or what the timeline looks like; an email chain between the Board and the neighbors went quiet in mid-May. Last week, a Board spokesperson could provide no end-date for negotiations about the vessel with GE, only a confirmation for The Lens that talks were ongoing but that no contract had yet been inked.
“This is ridiculous. You can’t just not solve this problem,” said Louisiana Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman, who represents the area. U.S. Rep. Troy Carter also called for a prompt resolution. “These oil-spraying incidents emphasize the need for environmental justice and prioritizing the safety and security of our communities,” he wrote, in a statement.
It’s unclear what state or federal pollution-control agencies have done to help forge a solution.
After the July compliance order, LDEQ could levy daily fines of up to $50,000. But it hasn’t, despite repeated visits by inspectors. When asked about the recent spraying incidents, a spokesman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency said merely that the agency “had reached out to LDEQ.”
Turbines on last legs
Over the past three years, the Board has lost half of its ancient 25-cycle turbines. Turbines 1 and 3 failed permanently. Only steam-driven Turbine 4 and gas-fired Turbine 5 remain.
The remaining two, steam-driven Turbine 4 and gas-fired Turbine 5, take turns sputtering and dying. They have been repeatedly refurbished, including a $30 million, seven-year repair of Turbine 4 with FEMA post-Katrina funds.
In 2022 and 2023, the two turbines combined have a long list of recorded failures, 24 for Turbine 4 and eight for Turbine 5.
Yet nothing else works as effectively.
Once running, the massive, ancient turbines can rapidly increase power when needed during a rainstorm. Operators at the Carrollton plant can ramp up gas or steam levels while other machines are started and brought online.
Historically, one of the older turbines runs constantly, providing the 25-cycle power needed by two groups of pumps, one providing drinking-water intake and distribution and the other keeping East Bank drainage-canal levels low. Usually, Turbine 4 serves this role.
On April 3, Turbine 4 conked out again, suffering major damage after what is known as a “runaway” incident, where it sped out of control, 33 percent beyond its nominal speed. Its emergency stop failed at least once before it stopped.
That left Turbine 5 as the lead power source, a role it had played several times in 2022, when Turbine 4 halted and needed repairs.
But days after Turbine 5 went online, it sprayed oil onto neighbors’ yards, porches and cars.
“Turn it off,” neighbors urged. Board officials explained that T5 was needed at all hours to provide power to drinking-water pumps. “It’s not that on a nice day we can just shut off all the turbines and call it a day,” agency director Ghassan Korban said, a few weeks later, at the April board meeting.
Still, the neighbors’ request was met, at least partly. Within days of Korban’s statement, according to a spokesperson, the Board quietly started turning Turbine 5 off on “dry” days, when rain chances were less than 30% for two consecutive days. On those days, a handful of smaller power sources ran the water and drainage pumps.
Over a 63-day period, from May 2 through July 3, S&WB shut down Turbine 5 for six intervals totaling 30 days. But when T5 powered up, the oil spraying resumed. Neighbors saw oil droplets in the middle of multi-day turbine runs, on May 17, June 21, and in the second week of July.
T4 was returned to service on August 8. But its creaky nature means T5 could return to the lead role at any time.
Despite its malfunctions and emissions, the Board is stuck with Turbine 5. Nothing else can power all needed pumps during wet weather.
“We understand the consequences of using T5, but sometimes it’s our only viable option,” Korban said in an emailed statement.
Claims process brings more headaches
The oil-spraying incidents, the Board’s efforts to make things right with neighbors have been patchwork. A few neighbors have filed claims through the Board’s complex damage-claims process. The Board has not proactively approached affected households, a spokesperson said, noting that claims staff is readily available if approached by neighbors.
LeBlanc’s claim was closed in March because he had not submitted three bids to have his car pressure-washed. “Who’s gonna come to your house to bid on that?” he asked.
In an ideal world, LeBlanc would like a paint job for his 1983 Monte Carlo. He’s well aware that the paint job was already faded.
But his classic old car looked especially ridiculous when covered with oily splotches. He couldn’t buff them off. So he painted the Monte Carlo with gray primer. “That way, I can repaint it when it happens again. Because it will happen again,” he said.
In early July, the Board’s claims staff offered Livaudais $120 for a six-month car wash membership. They also offered payment to cover monthly pressure-washing for her house for six months – a service worth $8,310, said Livaudais, who collected quotes from three firms.
But the two parties are at a stalemate. S&WB, who had negotiated a lower price with a pressure-washing vendor, wanted Livaudais to hire that vendor, who would be paid by the Board. Livaudais wanted the Board to pay her, for fear that the agency would not make timely payments to the contractor, putting her on the hook for the payments.
On Monday, August 7, the Board denied her entire claim.
Matt McBride is a freelance reporter covering infrastructure for The Lens. McBride, a mechanical engineer, began journalistic reporting after Hurricane Katrina with his blog “Fix the Pumps,” covering construction of post-Katrina flood protection construction by the Army Corps of Engineers.