If you glance down the largely smooth blocks of Brittany Court in Village de L’Est, you probably wouldn’t guess that this section of New Orleans East has many crumbling streets.
At least, no more than any other typical neighborhood in New Orleans, a city where potholes and uneven roads are an ugly fact of life. But walk a few streets past Ed Blouin’s Brittany Court home, and you begin to see the cracks in other homes’ foundations. You see the cratered driveways, so sunken that residents can barely steer into their garages.
And, in perhaps the most striking example of just how far the ground has fallen, you see the fence along Blouin’s longtime neighbor’s house, which -- after years during which the ground beneath it plunged -- now reaches just below Blouin’s knees.
“It’s got to be soil subsidence, because it’s not a drainage problem here,” said Blouin, who has lived in the predominantly black and Vietnamese New Orleans East community since 1978.
Finding the source of the problem that over time has caused residents to spend thousands of dollars on new soil and other corrective measures has become a priority for Blouin and his neighbors, especially as they discuss the potential effects of a water-using power plant that could be built minutes away from their homes.
Having a massive plant near Village de L’Est would be nothing new. It’s played neighbor to Entergy New Orleans’ Michoud steam-electric power station since the rows of tidy homes were first built there in the mid-1960s, a few years after the Michoud station was completed.
But in the years since then, rates of subsidence, or soil shrinkage and land sinkage, have surged in that area faster than anywhere else in the city.
New research suggests the sinking could be connected to the Michoud plant, which used millions of gallons of groundwater a day before its units were deactivated in June, ending the only source of electric power generation in Orleans Parish. Older studies partly tied the problem to a nearby geologic fault.
Entergy New Orleans has proposed building a $216 million natural gas-burning power plant in …
Entergy wants to build a natural gas-fired combustion turbine plant in Michoud’s place, one it says will use less water than the old plant.
Company officials say the plant is needed to help replace power lost when Michoud shut down and that it makes sense to put the plant at the same spot on Paris Road because Entergy already owns the land.
The City Council, which regulates Entergy New Orleans, would need to approve the plan; members in July set a deadline of early September for people interested in the plan to speak up.
Blouin and others say the new plant could make an old problem worse. Even if it wouldn’t, at least some of their criticism is driven by a feeling that the East in general and Village de L’Est in particular have gotten short shrift in favor of more elite neighborhoods elsewhere in the city.
As residents discussing the new plant put the issue at a recent meeting hosted by ENONAC, the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission, a coalition of neighborhood leaders that Blouin is part of: “Why New Orleans East?”
New plant to be different
At issue is the old 781-megawatt Michoud units’ seemingly endless thirst. To create enough steam to turn its turbines and produce electricty for 197,000 customers, the plant used gas to heat a maximum of 10.87 million gallons of groundwater daily.
Such water usage is typical in older plants, said Melissa Harris, a physical scientist at the Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Michoud opened in 1957.
Michoud sucked an additional 464 million gallons of surface water daily from the nearby Intracoastal Waterway.
The new study that has nearby residents up in arms -- put out in May by NASA, LSU and UCLA researchers -- suggested the most likely causes of subsidence in the area were groundwater depletion and drainage. It showed drops in soil levels as big as 1.18 inches a year at areas around the Michoud plant, the most in the city.
Although older data suggested the Michoud fault was to blame for most of the sinking, new mapping technology used in the May study found not much change in subsidence along that fault line.
While the study seemed to suggest the plant was responsible for at least some of the damage, its authors have been more cautious when speaking publicly, saying more research is needed before that conclusion can be drawn.
In any case, the old plant’s troubles are in the past, said Gary Huntley, Entergy’s vice president for regulatory affairs.
Entergy’s proposed 226-megawatt combustion turbine will use no more than 138,000 gallons of groundwater daily, he said, and it likely would use that much only in emergency situations. It would mainly use groundwater during hot summers, to cool itself. And it wouldn’t use surface water at all, Huntley said.
Combustion turbines pull in and compress air, which expands after it is ignited with natural gas. The expanded air then pushes the turbine generators, much as steam would. Such technology uses far less water, Harris said.
It also would create less pollution than the old Michoud plant, Huntley said.
That was enough for at least three New Orleans East residents who praised the new plant at a recent City Council committee meeting. They were Derrick Francis, president of the Lake Bullard Neighborhood Improvement District and a former city official; Corey Duckworth, the owner of Sassafras Restaurant in Gentilly; and Darryl Brown, another resident.
All three said a new plant would help reduce episodes of lost power, be better for the environment and be better overall long term.
None of them lives in Village de L’Est.
‘Doesn’t mean it’s right’
Tensions remain high over more than just soil sinking. Environmental groups and even the City Council claim Entergy tried to rush council approval of the proposed $216 million plant without first justifying its need.
Entergy says the council needs to OK the plant by January so work can start in February and finish in 2019. The Alliance for Affordable Energy, a nonprofit advocacy group, says more research is needed before the council signs off on the plans.
In general, the alliance and other groups want Entergy to invest in renewable energy, such as solar power, rather than in a new natural gas-fired power plant that could be in service for decades.
They also say the issue has racial implications, as the vast majority of power plants in Louisiana and the U.S. are near mostly minority communities.
For Sylvia Scineaux-Richard, president of the East New Orleans commission, some of Entergy’s justifications seem woefully inadequate. “We understand that (a plant) was there before, but that doesn’t mean that it was right,” she said. “This particular facility will be what the city needs, but is it what New Orleans East needs?”
Huntley, the Entergy executive, said accusations of racial insensitivity are debunked by the fact that the Michoud plant largely predated the communities that surround it. He said officials have attended numerous community meetings to try to soothe concerns.
“We have received encouragement from residents and business owners who recognize the critical importance of reliability in power generation,” he said, pointing to Thursday’s brief tornado and the power outage it caused.
Scineaux-Richard also stressed that ENONAC is taking a “cautious approach” to Entergy’s proposal. The group could back the plan in the near future, she said, if some conditions are met.
The belief that the city's power brokers treat the East as an afterthought is perhaps best expressed by Blouin, who heads the Village de L’Est Neighborhood Improvement Association and who says he and other neighborhood leaders often have to fight to get small problems fixed. He has no time for another big problem -- which is why he wants to make sure the city is thinking long and hard about Entergy’s proposal.
A few blocks away from the house with the sunken fence, he points to a large tree that has sprouted from an open, inoperable drain -- a tree he says should have been cut long ago.
To make change happen, “you got to call ... but everybody is calling,” he said. “And whoever's got more influence can get something done.”