Sewer plant fire leads to boil-water advisory

Associated Press photo by MATT HINTON -- New Orleans resident Isabel Medina stocks up on bottled water Sunday at the Winn Dixie Supermarket on Tchoupitoulas Street due to a boil water advisory after water pressure dipped below 15 PSI on the east bank.
Associated Press photo by MATT HINTON -- New Orleans resident Isabel Medina stocks up on bottled water Sunday at the Winn Dixie Supermarket on Tchoupitoulas Street due to a boil water advisory after water pressure dipped below 15 PSI on the east bank.

Most of the city awoke Sunday to little or no water pressure after a small fire at the Sewerage & Water Board’s century-old main power plant cut the flow of electricity to the facility for about 20 minutes, officials said.

The lack of power at the plant in the 8800 block of South Claiborne Avenue caused a drop in pressure and the issuance of a precautionary boil-water advisory for the east bank of Orleans Parish.

The boil-water advisory will remain in effect until Monday, said Marcia St. Martin, the Sewerage & Water Board’s executive director.

St. Martin said the “small” fire happened about 9 a.m. in a boiler in the power plant. No one was injured.

The boil-water advisory was issued about 45 minutes later since the pressure in the facility’s pipes dropped below 15 pounds per square inch, the threshold established by public health officials for issuing a boil-water advisory, she said.

Engineers were able to restore power to the plant and raise the water pressure in the system to 50 psi within 20 minutes, St. Martin said.

“We are operating the system today,” St. Martin said. “Water is being distributed through the system at normal pressure.”

The boil-water advisory does not affect Algiers since it gets its water supply from a separate plant. Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the city’s health commissioner, said samples of water were taken, and officials with the state Department of Health and Hospitals hope to have results within 24 hours.

In the meantime, DeSalvo said, officials recommended residents boil water for one minute and letting it cool before drinking it or using it for cooking, brushing teeth or preparing food. DeSalvo and St. Martin said the water was safe for bathing, unless a person has open wounds or is young or elderly.

Sunday’s power outage and boil-water advisory were just the most recent in a series of issues at the aging plant that have caused similar scenarios.

Last October, workers doing preventative maintenance on two of the boilers that generate the power tried to switch the power flow to another set of boilers when a failure happened.

A similar loss of power — though longer — happened at the plant Nov. 19, 2010. Pressure dropped to less than 10 psi during a 10-minute outage sometime between 10:30 and 11 p.m.

Each outage required a boil advisory.

The plant produces 25-cycle power, an archaic and uncommon frequency of electricity, to drive the motors that run about half the city’s drinking water system, namely giant pumps that suck raw water from the Mississippi River and smaller pumps that send purified water into the underground pipe network. That power was lost Sunday, forcing engineers to switch to 60-cycle power, another power system the board operates.

The power-generating system, which was built in 1903, has not been at full capacity since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, St. Martin has said.

FEMA gave the board $12 million in 2010 to begin fixing the power plant. The City Council in January obligated $141 million in hazard mitigation funds to complete the work. St. Martin said more than $130 million in FEMA funds have already been used to work on the plant since Katrina.

All the work from the $141 million hazard mitigation money will be completed by the end of 2016, St. Martin said. A $6.6 million contract will be awarded this month, she said.

“The key is to restore that power generation and power distribution system so it’ll be reliable for the next 100 years,” St. Martin said. “… All that work will stabilize the power plant.”