Boil-water advisory lifted after flare-up at S&WB power plant on Sunday

The Sewerage & Water Board lifted a precautionary boil-water advisory Monday afternoon that it issued nearly 30 hours earlier when a Sunday morning fire at its plant cut power to the facility, causing a drop in pressure in pipes that run through the east bank water distribution system.

The utility canceled the advisory after the state Department of Health and Hospitals found the water to be safe to drink, S&WB spokesman Robert Jackson said in a prepared statement.

The S&WB issued the advisory about 9:50 a.m. Sunday after a fire broke out about 9 a.m. in the boiler room of the plant in the 8800 block of South Claiborne Avenue. The all-clear came about 3:40 p.m. Monday, much to the relief of residents who flocked to grocery stores to buy bottled water and businesses that were affected by the advisory.

Algiers was not affected since its water supply is handled by a separate system.

Officials advised residents and businesses to flush their internal and external plumbing by running water for several minutes.

The power outage happened after a fan that controls the flow of natural gas into a boiler that makes power for the plant stopped working, S&WB General Superintendent Joe Becker told the utility’s operations committee on Monday.

A “glut” of natural gas in the boiler caused a flare-up that created a small fire, Becker said. The four workers on the job at the time quickly extinguished it, he said. But since the boiler makes the steam that powers turbines to produce the plant’s electricity, that flow was cut, causing the drop in pressure for about 20 minutes.

Pressure dropped below 15 pounds per square inch, the threshold established by public health officials for issuing a boil-water advisory. Engineers were able to restore power to the plant and raise the water pressure in the system to 50 psi within 20 minutes, S&WB Executive Director Marcia St. Martin said on Sunday.

When the pressure in the pipes drops, Becker said on Monday, there is a risk that contaminants can make their way into the pipes and the water supply.

While there are chemicals in the water designed to prevent any contaminants from affecting the supply, Becker said the advisory was done “out of an abundance of caution.”

There have been five boil-water advisories since the power plant was damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

The utility earlier this year received $141 million in hazard mitigation funds to begin to harden and repair the antiquated power system, which went online in 1903.

“Historically, this is a very rare occurrence,” Becker told the operations committee.

But right now, Becker said, only two of the six boilers operate thanks to ongoing repairs and Sunday’s fire. And one of the four turbines that create the power is out of service.

The hazard mitigation money should help resolve the problem of power failures, he said. The first phase of that work is expected to begin this month, St. Martin said Sunday.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to have a couple years here where we’re not going to have a whole lot of redundancy in our system,” Becker said on Monday. “If something doesn’t work, we’re going to have to be able to react quickly.”

Becker said a complete report on Sunday’s fire will be forthcoming.