The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year decided to forgo industry-standard factory testing on floodgate pumps it installed at the mouths of New Orleans' drainage canals. The pumps are designed to help drain the city of rainwater in the event the floodgates have to be closed during a tropical storm or hurricane to protect against a storm surge -- the kind of surge that broke the Corps' defective floodwalls and flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Instead of testing the pumps properly, the Corps installed defective pumps that did not meet the Corps' original testing specifications. The decision to install the pumps without properly testing them may have been influenced by the condition of the factory testing facilities, which suffered a major fire that killed one man and caused significant damage just days before testing was to begin.
Matt McBride, a local mechanical engineer and Corps watchdog, recently obtained a Corps of Engineers memo that detailed numerous problems discovered when the pumps were tested at Moving Water Industries (MWI), the Florida-based company that assembled the pumps. MWI says the problems were corrected before the pumps were delivered to New Orleans. The Corps says it hasn't taken ownership of the pumps because of a vibration issue, but adds that the pumps would have worked last year had they been needed. The Corps also says those pumps were modified and tested recently and will operate as expected.
A senior Corps official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, disagrees.
"These pumps would have self-destructed" had they been used, the Corps official says. McBride claims that the recent testing of pumps did not include any of the original, defective pumps -- and that the tests themselves were inadequate.
Questions surrounding the pumps and testing strategies recently prompted Sen. Mary Landrieu to send a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting that an investigation be launched into why the Corps installed the faulty pumps and if any improprieties occurred during the awarding of the contract to MWI or during that company's fulfillment of the contract. Congressmen William Jefferson of New Orleans and Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville as well as U.S. Sen. David Vitter also support investigations into the Corps.
On May 3, 2006, Maria Garzino, a mechanical engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, wrote a memorandum which carried the subject line: "Defective Pumping Equipment Supplied by MWI -- Pumping Equipment Not In Accordance With Contract Requirements." The 72-page document, obtained by McBride under the Freedom of Information Act, chronicles events that took place at MWI's south Florida factory during April 2006, when Garzino was directing the quality-assessment testing of 34 hydraulic pumps the Corps had purchased at a cost of $28.6 million.
Garzino, who declined to be interviewed for this article, ends the first paragraph of the memo by stating that the pumps "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." The memo then elaborates that problems began as soon as Garzino arrived at the factory.
She had to wait three days for MWI to complete construction on testing facilities, even though testing was scheduled to start upon her arrival. The delay was caused by a fire at MWI on March 23, 2006. Scott Kase, who was welding an overhead crane when the fire broke out, suffered severe burns and died five days later.
"[The fire] did extensive damage -- the electrical wiring was destroyed," says Mike Powers, a MWI company spokesman. "We have an alternative testing facility in Vero Beach (Fla.) we could have used, but we got this site up and running on time."
Except for the electricity.
Garzino notes in the memo that while tests were being conducted in the building during the evening, she asked MWI personnel if they could buy flashlights because "the test facility is pitch dark." Powers says there was some lighting, but it was insufficient, a problem that was later corrected with portable generators. Powers adds that MWI did not think it was necessary to move the testing to its fully functional Vero Beach facility.
According to the Corps' testing specifications, the tests were to include 100 percent load testing, and MWI would conduct the pump trials in a wet tank. During the tests, pumps were supposed to discharge water just as if the floodgates were closed. The memo discloses that the first time MWI attempted this, the test had to be called off because water overflowed the tank and flooded the facility. After repairs, MWI placed the pump back into the tank, but the test was called off when hydraulic oil overheated and spilled onto the drive unit.
Subsequent wet tests had similar problems, including hydraulic pump malfunctions, hoses melting and oil spills, Garzino's memo says, and only three of 13 tests were successful.
After more than a week of such problems, Corps officials -- their names were blacked out when the Corps released Garzino's memo -- decided to lower the standards for testing. On his blog, www.fixthepumps.blogspot.com, McBride identifies Dan Bradley and Jim St. Germain, Corps officials present at the MWI testing, and Dennis Stricker, a former Corps employee who is now a Corps contractor, as the officials who changed testing requirements. McBride says this occurred without the knowledge or approval of the Corps' contracting officer, Cynthia Nicholas, the only person authorized -- according to federal acquisition regulations -- to make contract modifications.
However, Col. Jeffrey Bedey, director of the Corps' Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans, says it is his understanding that Nicholas made the decision. When contacted about his role in lowering the standards, Dennis Stricker would only say, "I was working for a client at the time, and I don't think it would be prudent for me to answer any questions on that." Nicholas could not be reached by press time to comment on who approved the changes.
Authorized or not, the specifications were downgraded from full-load dynamic trials to five-hour endurance/reliability trials. Those trials tested the pumps' drive units but not the pump assemblies, which are what actually pump the water, Garzino's memo says. Because of this, the memo notes, only eight of the 34 pumps were load tested to determine whether they would move water. Of those eight, three pumps experienced "catastrophic failure," three pumps passed, and two others weren't tested correctly, the memo says.
Within two days, the test specifications were changed again. This time, the drive units were required to run for only three hours. The new, easier testing standards did yield better results: 40 percent of the drive units managed to make it through the three-hour endurance test, according to Garzino's memo.
Bedey defends the test alterations and says the Corps had to get pumps on location regardless of test results.
"That was the whole decision," Bedey says. "Do you continue testing in the factory at the risk of never getting pumps into the field before the hurricane season, or do you essentially move the testing to the field?"
The anonymous Corps official says the problem with this kind of strategy is that the ability to detect a design flaw and correct it is much easier in a factory setting. In fact, the Corps memo references an "as yet unknown design deficiency with the hydraulic system." The memo adds that the design deficiency, which would have made the MWI pumps inoperable, was likely -- and later proved -- to be part of drive units that had "passed" the more lenient testing requirements.
The design defect initially was discovered in August, when Corps personnel found the MWI pumps vibrated considerably during field tests. The defective hydraulic motors were shipped back to the manufacturer, identified in Corps documents as Denison, to correct the flaw after the end of the 2006 hurricane season.
Bedey insists that the MWI pumps would have worked last year had a storm forced the closing of the floodgates.
"I absolutely believe we would have moved water last year," Bedey says. "We were able to operate those pumps after we tested those pumps in the field. People will take exception with that, but I guess the truth is we'll never know."
The anonymous Corps official concedes that Bedey might be right about the MWI pumps moving water, but adds to it this question: "Five gallons or 5,000 gallons?"
For its part, MWI does not understand what the confusion is about. According to a recent news release from the company's attorney, William Scherer Jr., "Our pumps did, do and will work." MWI spokesman Powers says this was true when the company sent the pumps to New Orleans for installation in mid-May of last year. "As part of the assembly of pumps and the manufacture of pumps, you start them up, find out if there are any problems, and you rectify [those problems] before you send them to the customer. That's what we did."
Powers adds that Garzino's observations were made very early in the manufacturing process, although the memo, written on May 3, 2006, refers to "the pump assemblies and drive units, that are arriving in the field and being installed [in New Orleans] daily." This seems to contradict Powers' assertion that the pumps were not sent out until mid-May.
In her memo, Garzino writes that she observed the testing through May 1. Powers insists that "any issues that were found in south Florida in the plant were fixed before the pumps were shipped." When asked why more wet tests weren't conducted before the pumps were delivered to New Orleans, Powers replied, "I'm not an engineer -- I don't know how to answer that. The pumps worked when we sent them out."
Powers says MWI has been a reputable company since 1927, that it has pumps that currently keep parts of south Florida dry, and that MWI assisted in pumping water out of flooded New Orleans following Katrina. He says he doesn't understand how one memo by one person can trump a company's good reputation. "You've got a memo written by one person," he says, "and you've got a whole lot of other people not agreeing with it."
The "other people" are listed in the MWI news release as "other inspectors on site, and also by three additional inspectors and five separate independent consultants." Powers could not provide the names of those inspectors and consultants and wasn't sure if there were any MWI reports that discredited or contradicted Garzino's claims. Questions about the other experts should be directed to the Corps, he says.
The Corps' Bedey wasn't aware of the names or if anyone at the Corps had refuted the claims made in Garzino's memo. "I'm not going to comment on MWI's news release," Bedey says. "Suffice to say that we have yet to accept those pumps from a contractual perspective. We will not accept those pumps until we are satisfied."
This is not the first time that MWI has run into problems with government contracts. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the company and its president, J. David Eller. The feds accused Eller and a company agent of bribing Nigerian government officials with more than $20 million to secure the sale of MWI pumps to Nigeria in 1992. At the time of that sale, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush worked for Bush-El, a partnership between Eller and Bush, marketing MWI equipment overseas. The governor has denied any involvement in actions alleged in the suit. The case is still pending.
Bedey says testing hasn't been completed because the Corps hasn't fully accepted the 34 pumps. The Corps has paid 80 percent of the contract. In addition, he says the Corps has been running "full testing" on the pumps and refers to a recent article in The Times-Picayune that trumpets four pumps' successful run. Those pumps, however, were purchased from MWI after the design flaw had been corrected and are not among the original suspect pumps.
"If you want to slice the apple back in, okay, I'll buy that," Bedey says. "But I'll tell you I tested four additional pumps this past Saturday (March 17) with all of the modifications. I only ordered 40 [MWI] pumps, so now I've tested eight ... you have to give me that no less than two of them are part of the original 34."
The Corps is going to install new pumps in addition to the MWI pumps at the floodgates. The new direct-drive pumps aren't hydraulic, have more pumping capacity per unit and reportedly are more robust.
What's in question, McBride says, are the specifications for the most recent tests. He wonders if the Corps is following Hydraulic Institute standards, which are part of the pump's original specifications and are considered the standard for the hydraulic pump industry. What's particularly interesting to McBride is how long the pumps are running during these tests. "It would seem like common sense to run them for the amount (of time) they would be run under normal use" -- somewhere between 12 and 24 hours, or longer, he says.
Although he wasn't present for the most recent test, Bedey says the pumps were run "well in excess of an hour." When asked why they weren't run much longer, he declined to speculate: "I can't give you an absolute answer, and I'm not going to try to answer something I can't give you an absolute answer to."
Editor's note: David Winkler-Schmit has worked with Matt McBride on a volunteer committee for the Broadmoor Improvement Association. Winkler-Schmit is listed as a witness for McBride's Freedom of Information Act request from the Corps of Engineers for further documentation regarding the Corps operations.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Engineer Matt McBride, pictured with pumps at the Orleans Canal levee, has become a watchdog who hounds the Corps to repair the levees in New Orleans correctly and bring flood protection back to the city.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The 17th Street Canal flood protection complex.