SUNDAY EDITION | East End tunnel needed additional repairs after sprinkler system fixed
Emails obtained by WDRB News indicate that sensors meant to keep pipes in the tunnel from freezing were installed in the wrong place.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Crews undertook a second round of repairs inside an eastern Jefferson County highway tunnel earlier this year, fixing burst water pipes that were not discovered until work to mend a sprinkler system was complete.
The extra work, revealed in emails obtained by WDRB News under Kentucky’s open records law, helps explain why the tunnel was closed to hazardous cargo for more than four months, forcing those potentially flammable loads to travel through downtown Louisville until the ban was lifted May 18.
And the emails suggest that sensors meant to keep the broken pipes in the tunnel from freezing were installed in the wrong place. As a result, a Kentucky official concluded, it was not possible to gauge the actual temperatures of the pipes and warm them properly.
Those issues were in addition to widespread damage that was observed in early January to the main sprinkler system in the 1,700-foot-long tunnel that carries Kentucky 841 to the Lewis and Clark Bridge, prompting the ban on hazardous materials. Repairs to that system were complete by mid-March, the emails show.
“The safety features are all working as intended, and things have been repaired,” Andrea Clifford, a Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokeswoman, said in an interview last week. “Motorists probably don’t even notice a lot of those things as they’re driving through at 55 miles per hour, but it is all working properly.”
Both sets of repairs were needed slightly more than one year after the tunnel opened to traffic in December 2016, and they highlight the unusual, two-state approach to building and operating the structure – Kentucky’s second longest after the 4,600-foot-long Cumberland Gap tunnel near Middlesboro.
With a price tag of $495 million, the tunnel and surrounding roads cost more than either of the two bridges Kentucky and Indiana built during the $2.3 billion Ohio River Bridges Project. The underground route was controversial, bypassing a mansion’s gardens due to historic preservation concerns.
In dividing work on the project, Indiana took charge of the upriver Lewis and Clark and all roads leading to it on both sides of the river, including the tunnel’s northbound and southbound tubes and their mechanical systems. But once construction was complete, Indiana turned over the tunnel to Kentucky to operate and maintain.
There also were different approaches to paying for the tunnel repairs.
Records show Kentucky spent more than $133,000 to fix the sprinkler system and add new technology that will signal when pumps that recirculate water aren’t running. No one was told when those pumps stopped working around January 1, causing pipes to freeze during cold weather.
The funding will come from Kentucky’s share of tolls paid by drivers who cross the Lewis and Clark and the Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy bridges, which carry Interstate 65 traffic in downtown Louisville. The states evenly split all toll money.
“Toll revenues are used for the operations and maintenance of the Ohio River Bridges Project, including the tunnel operations, so yes, they are being used for this maintenance work,” Clifford said.
But the second wave of repairs to correctly place the sprinkler system’s water-temperature sensors was covered by WVB East End Partners, the group of companies that built the eastern bridge under a contract with Indiana.
WVB declined to make officials available for an interview, but spokesman Dan Hartlage said in an email that the design of the sensors was reviewed and Kentucky and Indiana raised “no exception.” Moreover, he said, “the sensors were installed per the plan.”
The cost of the repairs wasn’t disclosed.
Asked to explain why WVB didn’t bill either state for the work, Hartlage said Walsh Construction, one of the companies in WVB, has done business with Kentucky in the past and “it values that relationship.” (Walsh built the downtown, Kentucky-led bridge under a separate contract.)
“So for that reason, it was decided to make the repairs,” he said.
In response to a public records request, the Indiana Finance Authority provided reports indicating the tunnel’s fire-suppression system and related components were initially approved. But it redacted all details in the reports, citing part of Indiana law that allows “advisory or deliberative material” and other opinions to be kept from public view.
There have been prior concerns with freezing in the tunnel. In December 2016, as the tunnel’s opening neared, Harrods Creek Fire Chief Kevin Tyler told WDRB that during a training exercise a water valve was discovered frozen. It was quickly fixed, he said.
Two days later the first vehicles crossed the river and began using the tunnel. A year later, an estimated 17,700 cars, trucks and motorcycles were passing through it each day.
Multiple repairs needed
Shortly after midnight on December 29, a fire alarm sounded in the tunnel’s operations center. After scanning the tunnel, no fire was found.
But transportation officials discovered over the next few days that the fire protection system had been damaged, rendering a network of sprinklers useless. During the false alarm, they found, a water pump shut off and caused water moving through the pipes to stop circulating.
The water ultimately froze, bursting the pipes.
Even though the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet maintains that the technology had been installed according to design plans, the tunnel lacked “comprehensive system monitoring,” making it impossible to know that the pumps for the recirculating water had been shut down, according to an internal memo.
Kentucky since has made changes meant to prevent similar damage in the future, Clifford said.
“There’s been an upgrade to the system to add a notification whenever those recirculation pumps are not working or when they are shut off,” she said.
The fire safety system uses foam and water to keep any fires in the tunnel from spreading until emergency crews arrive. Brown Sprinkler, which installed the system, made the repairs to the pipes and insulation under a no-bid contract Kentucky approved in order to keep the system under warranty.
Once that work was finished, Brown Sprinkler was re-pressurizing the system when Kentucky officials were alerted to a “new obstacle” in equipment known as deluge boxes, Tom Wright, a Transportation Cabinet engineer, wrote to WVB officials on March 12. Those boxes contain water supply control valves.
The issue, Wright explained, was that pipes inside had frozen and burst. A contractor, Glenwood Electric, found that sensors inside the boxes were located in the wrong place and resulted in “no way of detecting the true temperature of the pipes inside the deluge boxes,” he wrote.
Stephanie McFarland, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Finance Authority, said the tunnel system’s design “was functional and correct to standard installation.”
“It was expertly tested and passed those tests upon completion of construction installation (and operated properly throughout 2016 and 2017) per standard configuration – which included the original placement of the sensors in question,” she said.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet did not respond to questions posed Thursday about Indiana’s contention that the sensors were installed properly.
Police enforced ban
Kentucky and Indiana state police patrolled the area on both sides of the river to ensure that no vehicles carrying hazardous cargo entered the tunnel for about a week, according to the agencies.
Kentucky State Police used four officers and troopers per day working 12-hour overtime shifts, said Sgt. Jason Morris, spokesman for the commercial vehicle enforcement division.
In Indiana, vehicle enforcement officers didn’t use any overtime during its weeklong, 12-hour shifts, Sgt. Jerry Goodin said in an email.
While the sprinkler system was not working, the Harrods Creek Fire Department worked to ensure that other departments would help respond to a potential fire in the tunnel, emails show.
“It didn’t really change our daily operations,” Tyler, the Harrods Creek chief, said in an interview. “It didn’t add additional costs. If we had an incident in the tunnel we would have had a contingency plan.”