Thursday, November 29, 2012

Upkeep of New Orleans Levee

Story first appeared on

In the busy and under-staffed offices of New Orleans' flood-control leaders, there's an uneasy feeling about what lies ahead.
By the time the next hurricane season starts in June of 2013, the city will take control of much of a revamped protection system of gates, walls and armored levees that the Army Corps of Engineers has spent about $12 billion building. The corps has about $1 billion worth of work left.
Engineers consider it a Rolls Royce of flood protection - comparable to systems in seaside European cities such as St. Petersburg, Venice, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Whether the infrastructure can hold is less in question than whether New Orleans can be trusted with the keys.
The Army Corps estimates it will take $38 million a year to pay for upkeep, maintenance and operational costs after it's turned over to local officials.
Local flood-control chief Robert Turner said he has questions about where that money will come from. At current funding levels, the region will run out of money to properly operate the high-powered system within a decade unless a new revenue source is found.
There's a price to pay for resiliency, the levee engineer said from his office at the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.
On Nov. 6, New Orleans voters were faced with one of their first challenges on flood protection when they voted on renewal of a critical levee tax. The tax levy was approved, meaning millions of dollars should be available annually for levee maintenance.
Bob Bea, a civil engineer at the University of California, said the region must find additional money to keep the system working properly.
Many locals remain uneasy, even though Turner's agency is a welcome replacement for local levee boards that were previously derided.

After Katrina, the locally run levee boards that oversaw the area's defenses were vilified, and quickly replaced by the regional levee district run by Turner.
Congressional investigations found the old Orleans Levee Board more interested in managing a casino license and two marinas than looking after levees. Though the Army Corps of Engineers had responsibility for annual levee inspections, the local levee boards were responsible for maintenance. Still, the boards spent millions of dollars on a fountain and overpasses rather than on levee protection. And there was confusion over who was responsible for managing the fragmented levee system, U.S. Senate investigations revealed.
Still, experts generally agree the old levee board's failings did not cause the levees to collapse during Katrina. Poor levee designs by the corps and the sheer strength of Katrina get the lion's share of the blame.
Since the Flood Control Act of 1936, the Army Corps has given local or state authorities oversight of water-control projects, whether earthen levees in the Midwest or beach walls in New England.

New Orleans is an unusual case because the area is inheriting the nation's first-of-its-kind urban flood control system.

The nation has spent lavishly on fixing the system in the seven years since Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and left 1,800 people dead.

Ensuring it remains that way could be tricky. The biggest headaches are several mega-projects with lots of moving parts, all needing constant upkeep. The corps is building them across major waterways that lead into New Orleans.
Take for instance the 1.8-mile-long, 26-foot-high surge barrier southeast of the French Quarter that blocks water coming up from the Gulf of Mexico across lakes and into the city's canals. Water from this direction doomed the Lower 9th Ward and threatened to flood the French Quarter. Maintaining this giant wall alone will cost $4 million or more a year.

There is a mounting list of to-dos.
Already, lightning has knocked out chunks of wall. Grass hasn't grown well on several new stretches of levee. Louisiana State University grass experts have been called in to help seed them.
There are recurring problems with vibrations and shuddering on a new floodgate at Bayou Dupre in St. Bernard Parish. The corps has plans to overhaul the structure in the spring before handing it over to local control. And there will be the inevitable sinking of levees and structures, as always happens in south Louisiana's naturally soft soils. Over time, levees will have to be raised.
Col. Ed Fleming, the New Orleans corps commander, said his outfit will work to ensure the transition to local control is smooth.

United States Wealth Rises

Story first appeared on

The nation's oil and gas boom is driving up income so fast in a few hundred small towns and rural areas that it's shifting prosperity to the nation's heartland, a USA TODAY analysis of government data shows.

The 261 million people who live in cities and suburbs still haven't recovered earning power lost in the economic downturn. Average income per person fell 3.5% in metropolitan areas between 2007 and 2011 after adjusting for inflation, according to data released Monday by the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

By contrast, small-town America is better off than before: Inflation-adjusted income is up 3.8% per person since 2007 for the 51 million in small cities, towns and rural areas.

The energy boom and strong farm prices have reversed, at least temporarily, a long-term trend of money flowing to cities. Last year, small places saw a 3% growth in income per person vs. 1.8% in urban areas.

Small-town prosperity is most noticeable in North Dakota, now the nation's No. 2 oil-producing state. Six of the top 10 counties are above the state's Bakken oil field.

The Boise area's rank in income per person plummeted from 139th to 251st among metro areas from 2007 to 2011, the biggest drop of any place except Las Vegas, which suffered largely because of high-tech layoffs and a real estate price collapse.

VIDEO: Inside a North Dakota 'Man Camp'

Other findings:

-- Richest. The Bridgeport-Stamford, Conn., metro area had income of $78,504 per person in 2011, making the New York suburb the most affluent place in the USA for the past decade. The oil community of Midland, Texas, was next, followed by the high-tech metro areas of San Francisco and San Jose.

-- Poorest. Three Texas metro pockets were poorest: McAllen, Brownsville and Laredo. Income per person in McAllen: $21,260. Lake Charles, La., was poorest among metro areas having 200,000 or more residents.

-- Surprising. Rochester, N.Y., moved up faster in the income rankings than any big metro area, despite suffering layoffs when hometown company Kodak went bankrupt. Rochester ranked No. 43 in income among the 102 metro areas of 500,000 or more, climbing 21 positions since 2007.

-- High-paying jobs. The oil county of Sutton, Texas, saw wages and benefits double to $115,775 per job from 2007 to 2011, BEA reports. Only New York City's Manhattan had higher-paying jobs last year.

-- Benefits. Three Kentucky counties — Owsley, McCreary and Wolfe — are the only places that rely on government programs such as Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid for more than half of income.

The BEA's data is the government's most comprehensive report on income in the nation's 3,000 counties. It includes wages, benefits and investment income, plus government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. The Census Bureau does not county benefits, food stamps, Medicare or Medicaid as income.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Strip Club Blown Away in Natural Gas Explosion

story first appeared in Lost Angeles Times

A natural gas explosion that tore through a strip club in western Massachusetts on Friday night scattered brick and glass for blocks, injured more than a dozen people and displaced dozens of apartment dwellers.

About 40 apartment units have been condemned, at least one neighboring building will have to be demolished and others will be inspected Saturday morning after what Springfield Police Commissioner William Fitchet called the most devastating gas explosion in his 40 years in the city. Despite the destruction, it appeared no one was killed.

About an hour before the 5:25 p.m. explosion, the local utility company, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, started receiving calls from people who smelled gas in downtown Springfield. Crews arrived within 30 minutes and determined the odor was coming from Scores Gentlemen's Club.

By then, State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said, gas had accumulated to an explosive level inside the building. Customers, employees and dancers were soon rushing to safety.

Debbie, a dancer at Scores who didn't want her last name used, told the Republican, a local newspaper, that she was performing on stage when she was told to evacuate.

As she gathered her clothes, Debbie told the newspaper, the manager told her to get out.

The manager hurried people over to the Mardi Gras Champagne Room across the street, the Republican reported. After barely half an hour, the building exploded.

The blast was heard for miles, rattling the community and sending glass shards flying.

Coan credited local firefighters with saving lives.

Most of those injured were first responders trying to stop the gas leak or others urging people to take cover. City officials said at least 18 people were injured: nine firefighters, four Columbia Gas workers, two Springfield police officers, one city water and sewer maintenance worker and two civilians. Firefighters suffered cuts and back injuries, and one was injured falling into a sewer after the blast, Springfield Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant said.

Stephanie Simmons, a waitress working two blocks away from the explosion, described the blast to the Republican newspaper. She said it felt like an earthquake or a large explosion.

Springfield building, electrical, plumbing and housing workers are scheduled to go building to building Saturday morning to assess the damage around the blast. At least three buildings around the club were severely damaged. Officials said they were considering controlled demolitions Friday night.

Tenants in nearby apartments will have to find somewhere else to sleep while building officials determine whether the buildings can be declared safe.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency was activated after the explosion, and workers will help find shelter for displaced residents, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said.

Over the next two days, Columbia Gas crews will spread across downtown to drill holes in the streets and take measurements for gas leaks. Tests Friday night didn't reveal any other leaks, company spokeswoman Sheila Doiron said.

She said the company had no records of gas leaks in the Scores club or elsewhere in the area for the last 10 years.

On Nov. 10, a natural gas explosion in Indianapolis killed a married couple and left more than 30 houses uninhabitable. Authorities have opened a homicide investigation into that blast.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Richmond Refinery Repaired with New Chrome Alloy

story first appeared on

RICHMOND -- Chevron will use chrome alloy to replace all the piping in the sections of its Richmond refinery that were damaged in an Aug. 6 fire that hobbled the fuel factory and curtailed its production, the energy giant said in a letter it released Wednesday.

The chrome alloy pipes could address one of the key issues that contributed to the fire. Chevron has notified industry officials that thinning and corrosion in pipes at the refinery may have caused pipe failures ahead of the accident and fire, according to the letter issued by Nigel Hearne, general manager of the Richmond refinery. Hearne sent his letter to the city of Richmond and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The new chrome alloy pipes are constructed of similar materials to that of ball screws. Ball Screw Repair specialists know the value of product materials and the benefit of precision craftsmanship.

The fire knocked out the refinery's crude unit No. 4, which processes and distills crude oil and is deemed to be the heart of the plant. Since the fire, the Chevron refinery has been operating at around 60 percent capacity and has primarily blended gasoline.

Hearne wrote in the letter that he is optimistic they can com plete the planned repairs and restart in the first quarter of 2013.

San Ramon-based Chevron intends to replace damaged support structures, pressure vessels, tanks and pumps, along with the chrome alloy pipe replacement. The company also intends to repair the cooling tower, motor control center, and fix an array of instruments and electrical systems.

City manager Bill Lindsay said it was helpful to have the planned repairs laid out. He said they'd continue evaluating permit applications and hoped to process permits expeditiously.

City officials also were encouraged about the Chevron plans to replace the pipes that may have corroded with pipes made with chrome alloy. Chrome is often used in manufacturing Walk-in Coolers and other refrigeration equipment because it resists rust.

Lindsay also said that the new materials in Chevrons pipe replacement is significant. From what he understands, they are created with materials better suited for the conditions that lead to the accident.

United Steelworkers Local 5, which represents 600 employees at the Chevron refinery, is also following the repair and replacement efforts closely.

Mike Smith, a representative for Local 5 said their main focus is safety. Specifically, he said, the safety of the workers, the environment and the community. If he feels things are going the wrong way, he assures he'll be vocal.

The refinery has the capacity to handle 244,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Soon after the fire knocked the refinery offline, gasoline prices spiked in the Bay Area. Prices have retreated somewhat since then, however. The refinery's restoration could offer welcome relief for California drivers since the plant is one of the largest refineries in the nation.

The average price of gasoline was $3.94 a gallon on Thursday, which was 2.1 percent above the $3.86 average price in the hours before the early August fire. When Bay Area prices rocketed to a record high average of $4.70 a gallon in early October, those per-gallon prices were about 22 percent higher than the fire.

Solar Power More Available at Night

story first appeared on

UNION CITY -- DayStar Technologies has struck a deal to buy a company whose technology could solve a problem that has chilled the solar energy industry: How to make solar power available for electricity usage at night when the sun is gone. While wind power is available day and night, solar is obviously limited to daylight hours. Wind Turbine Repair services make sure energy is renewable by keeping wind turbines in good operating order.

DayStar is planning to buy Premier Global Holdings. Premier Global has rights to a patent pending for a solar conversion unit that can generate and store solar energy within a single unit. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

The technology is based on photosynthesis, a process that's similar to the way plants convert light to usable energy.

Union City-based DayStar believes the technology can reduce overall power usage in an electricity grid.