When Does a Test Hold Water?

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I’ve known Matt McBride, a mechanical engineer and a Army Corps of Engineers watchdog, for about 2 years. In that time, I’ve seen McBride spend what appears to be an unbelievable amount — Does this guy eat or sleep? — trying to keep the Corps honest. McBride combs through huge piles of government documents like Takeru Koybayashi going through a mound of hotdogs. And McBride finds more than indigestion; he discovers indignation and dismay at the Corps incompetence.

It was McBride who alerted the media and the public that the Corps had installed defective pumps in 2006 at the outfall canals. The pumps are used in case the floodgates have to be closed in the event of a hurricane. When gates are closed, the pumps will move water out of city. That is, of course, if they work, and as a memo written by one of the Corps own engineers, Maria Garzino, pointed out, the pumps failed when they were tested prior to installation. McBride found out about the contents of the memo through the Freedom of Information Act request. Not only were the pumps defective, but also, as I wrote back in March ’07 so were the testing facilities used. Still, the Corps installed the pumps, New Orleans survived the 2006 hurricane season, and the defective pumps were repaired for the 2007 season with each pump successfully tested for two hours.

Considering that the Corps had downplayed the issue of the defective pumps and that there remained some questions regarding just how safe the pumps are now, Senator Mary Landrieu asked the federal government’s Governmental Accountability Office to investigate. Last week, the GAO’s report came out and as the Times Picayune reported the Corps was essentially cleared of any wrongdoing. Sure, the Corps “did not develop a contract that was clear and precise with respect to testing and acceptance criteria…” but they did provide some pumping capacity for the 2006 season and the pumps are currently fully operational.

No harm, no foul, right?

Not according to McBride. McBride sent a group email to the media the day the GAO report was issued because he noted what he considered to be “cognitive dissonance” on the part of the GAO. Here’s what McBride wrote in the message:

“By the way here's an example of that cognitive dissonance... [the following is taken from the GAO report, “Know Performance Issues on New Orleans Drainage Canal Pumps Have Been Addressed, but Guidance on Future Contracts is Needed.”]

"Under normal conditions, when there are low water levels in the canals, it is not possible to test each pump system for an extended period of time, and any tests conducted cannot approach the design capacity of the pumping systems."

and then later on the same page [McBride’s note]:

"According to Corps officials, because all of the outstanding repairs have been completed and on-site testing indicates that the system is now fully operational, final acceptance of the pumping systems and the contract closeout is expected to be completed early in calendar year 2008."

This is talking out of both sides of one's mouth, and the GAO is acting as the Corps' mouth.

That final sentence above is McBride’s, but it’s hard to argue with it. Yes, the Corps did repair the pumps, but they still haven’t fully tested them — they have only been run two hours at a time. How many tropical storms or hurricanes do you know where there was only about two hours worth of rain? Will the floodgates be closed for only two hours?

These are legitimate questions and the Corps still hasn’t answered them. If the installed pumps, which will protect the homes and lives of more than a million people in the metro area, can’t be tested because there aren’t sufficient water levels in the canals, then go back and fully test one of those pumps in a factory setting, which is what the original contract called for.

If that’s not necessary, then it’s up to the Corps to fully explain to us non-engineers why it isn’t (McBride, who is an engineer, doesn’t agree with them), not just that there isn’t enough water. Because if the floodgates are closed in case of a hurricane, there will be plenty of water.

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