HOUSTON — The City of Houston spends millions of dollars for backup generators at its three water treatment plants, but they were never turned on Sunday after a power disruption triggered a pressure drop and boil water notice.
“The question I immediately asked: Did the generators kick on?” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a Monday morning news conference.
“And I was told, 'No mayor, the generators didn’t kick on.' And I asked why?” Turner said.
The City of Houston has a 20-year, $56 million contract with NRG to have heavy-duty diesel generators at its three water purification plants.
An NRG spokesperson said at the East Water Purification Plant in the 2300 block of Federal Road, all 32 of those backup generators were “available and ready to be dispatched.”
But the City of Houston never asked NRG to turn them on.
“We did not call for the backup generators, but they would not have a difference,” Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock said.
Haddock said that’s because the supply of power wasn’t the issue — the grid was up and running and providing electricity — but the two city-owned transformers that malfunctioned could not connect to any power source.
“The failure was inside the plant that was between the supply side and getting to our treatment facility, and so even if the backup generators had been on, we would have had the same problem,” Haddock said.
At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Turner said the two transformers went offline due to a ground trip and current overload. Haddock said the primary focus was resetting that equipment so it could accept electricity and feed power to the treatment facility. That process took nearly two hours.
“You can’t connect to the grid where power is running, and you can’t connect to your generators, then you have a very unique and unfortunate situation,” Turner said.
The East Water Purification Plant was built in 1954 and the city has spent tens of millions of dollars in upgrades in recent years. A Houston Public Works spokesperson said the city has a contract with a vendor that performs regular maintenance on the transformers, and there was nothing in their history to indicate Sunday’s malfunction. The spokesperson added that the transformers are about 24 years old.