SWBNO Faces Many Challenges Heading Into 2020

As 2019 draws to a close and we head into 2020, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWBNO) faces several challenges. Aging infrastructure experiencing failures on an increasingly catastrophic level and almost nonexistent public confidence and trust (not to mention numerous financial woes) show virtually no sign of abating as the city heads into the next decade.

Infrastructure Woes

Graphic courtesy of SWBNO

It’s no secret that that New Orleans’ water pipes are well past their expiration date. In May, the city released a graphic showing that many of the city’s 1,500 miles of water pipes – nearly 48 percent – were installed before 1940. Of those, more than 34 percent are 100 years old or older. As a result, New Orleans averages 67 breaks per 100 miles of pipe in the city each year. That’s far above the 14 breaks per 100 miles each year that is averaged across the United States.

Water loss is also an ongoing problem for the SWBNO. As reported by Big Easy Magazine writer Jesse Lu Baum in November 2018, the city loses around 82 million gallons of water every day – nearly half of what it treats/produces. According to one report, on average, cities in the United States lose around 16 percent of their treated water. Once again, New Orleans is far above the average.

More alarmingly, the SWBNO’s power turbines are also showing signs of catastrophic failure. While turbine and pump failures are nothing new for New Orleans (nearly every flood event in the city results in a press release from the utility noting the volume of rain and the failure of a pump or a turbine), but on December 14, the issue came screaming into the public notice when there was an explosion at the SWBNO plant on Claiborne Avenue. Two people were injured, and windows in the Uptown area were shattered due to the force of the explosion. According to reports, the explosion occurred at turbine 5, which was built in 1958. It was taken offline for nearly eight months beginning in July 2017 for repairs but was fully operational at the time of the explosion. A video posted by WWLTV shows a resident’s house rocked by the shockwave from the explosion.


But it isn’t just the water system that is showing serious signs of disrepair. Earlier this month, ongoing issues with a sewer line nearly forced the SWBNO to dump raw sewage into the Mississippi River. Unbeknownst to the public, the SWBNO had been dealing with major sewage back up at Sewer Pump Station D. According to reports, a valve at the station failed in the “closed” position on the main sewer line that sends raw sewage from Gentilly, Lakeview, and the Seventh Ward to the East Bank Water Treatment Plant. This resulted in the SWBNO issuing an emergency declaration in order to “fast track” the repairs on the sewer line.

“It was reacted to in a very timely fashion and it was very well contained,” said SWBNO Executive Director Ghassan Korban.

The emergency declaration notes a second sewer issue, on a 60″ pressurized sewer force main (SFM). According to the emergency declaration, that leak could lead to a potential blowout. “An increase in leakage of sewage from the SFM has recently been observed adjacent to the Norfolk Southern Railroad track bed,” the declaration notes. “An uncontrolled sewage leak leading to a potential SFM blowout would result in significant risk to public health, safety, and welfare and cause harm to the environment,” the document continues.

However, in spite of the strong language used in the emergency declaration, Korban attempted to downplay the seriousness of that leak to the media and the public. “There’s no danger; it’s very well managed,” Korban said. “Anything that is seeping out of the actual pipe is being contained and is being pumped back into the system.”

The contradictory nature of the SWBNO’s official communications with the public versus their statements in the emergency declaration brings up the next serious challenge facing the utility as we head into 2020: the complete loss of public trust.

A Complete Lack of Trust

How do you trust a utility that seems bent on deceiving the public at every turn? The example above of Korban’s response to the media versus what was printed in the utility’s own emergency declaration is only one in a long line of attempts to conceal the dismal state of the utility from the public – in spite of promises to be more open and transparent.

As noted by New Orleans resident Matt McBride, in addition to sewage backup at Sewer Pump Station D, as well as a major leak in the SFM, there is another issue that hasn’t been reported by SWBNO: constant duty sewage pump “E” is out of service – and has been for at least three months, and potentially up to eight months.

In August of this year, many New Orleans residents were stunned to learn that the underground drainage canals throughout the city apparently had not been inspected or cleared since before Hurricane Katrina. The canals were finally inspected after a July street flooding event that baffled authorities when the canal at the intersection of the Lafitte Greenway and Jefferson Davis Parkway overtopped. After the inspection, the SWBNO removed more than 370 tons of debris from a three-mile stretch of that canal – including two cars, one of which was reported missing just after Hurricane Katrina.

Finally, the SWBNO now appears to be in breach of Louisiana state law in regards to filling a seat on the Board that is reserved for a retired civil engineer. Louisiana requires that the Board’s Selection Committee must meet within 15 to 30 days after the close of an application period. On October 21, SWBNO announced that the seat was vacant, and set a deadline for applications of November 15, 2019. The seat had actually been vacant since March when appointee Glen Pilie resigned. Now, the 30-day state-mandated deadline for the Selection Committee meeting has passed, and no meeting was held.

None of this is helping to rebuild public trust in a utility viewed by many residents with open contempt.

Financial Problems Draw Federal Ire

To make matters worse, SWBNO has now drawn the negative attention of the Internal Revenue Service. On December 17, the IRS put a lien on the SWBNO for unpaid taxes, indicated that although the utility withheld federal income tax, social security tax, and Medicare tax from its employee’s paychecks, that money was never paid to the government. In addition, the utility also withheld federal taxes from pension and 401K payments but also didn’t pay that money to the government.

In total, SWBNO owes $185,741.00 to the IRS in unpaid taxes. As a result, the federal government filed a lien for all assets of the utility. “Technically, the IRS could foreclose and force the sale of assets or go attack their accounts,” said CPA Patrick Lynch. “They need to pay this, and until they do, the interest and the penalties will continue to accrue.”

According to the SWBNO they are in “constant communication with the IRS,” and are “committed to resolving this issue swiftly.” They insist that “under new leadership, we are cleaning up our process and increasing accountability to ensure we are preventing these types of situations going forward.”

Jenn Bentley is a freelance writer whose work has also been featured in publications such as Wander N.O. More, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_

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