Sen. McCaskill investigates troubled power plant in Afghanistan

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 1, 2014 

— A major U.S.-funded power plant built in Afghanistan by Kansas-based contractor Black & Veatch is barely being used and is not properly maintained by poorly trained Afghan staff, according to a recent audit.

The $300 million Tarakhil power plant outside Kabul has been “severely underused” and only generates 2.2 percent of the power it was intended to produce, according to the audit by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Had the power plant been operating as designed, at the recommended 90 percent capacity, the plant could have produced more than 2.9 million megawatt-hours of electricity from July 2010 to December 31 2013,” the audit stated. “Instead, the plant’s output during this period totaled only about 63,000 megawatt-hours, a small fraction of Tarakhil’s potential production capacity.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., on Tuesday sent a letter demanding answers from USAID, which oversaw the project.

“The power plant operates only as an emergency power source and its generators sit idle most of the time,” McCaskill wrote in the letter to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. “Worse, this limited use is actually damaging to plant equipment and, over time, could lead to catastrophic failure.”

McCaskill said she was outraged by the situation and complained that the waste “seems to have been entirely predictable and preventable.”

The Democratic senator, who heads a subcommittee tasked with oversight of government contracting, requested that USAID provide documentation for the contracts, expenses and task orders related to the plant, all communications about the project, and a list of responsible USAID staff.

She also asked the agency to produce an analysis to identify “a more economical and affordable fuel supply” for the plant, which can only run on diesel, a fuel that is expensive and dangerous to transport in Afghanistan.

In the audit, which was released on June 19, the inspector general notes that USAID “claimed to be against building the plant from the very beginning and expressed concerns about the project,” but the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan instructed the agency to move forward anyway.

Under political pressure, USAID never conducted an in-depth study of fuel issues and did not explore other options for powering the plant, auditors said.

After USAID transferred the plant to Afghan control in 2010, the agency continued to provide maintenance support and training through a $27.7 million contract with the Louis Berger Group and Black & Veatch, based in Overland Park, Kan. The inspector general’s audit found that the training “did not adequately prepare staff to run the plant.”

Afghan staff needed help to fix the plant’s malfunctioning computer systems and wasn’t capable of maintaining its equipment, auditors said. Staff also did not track inventory and failed to maintain records of spare parts and other supplies, according to the audit.

Auditors said the trouble was compounded by “chronic problems” with operating software in five generator units, which staff hadn’t properly been taught how to troubleshoot.

Engineering firm Black & Veatch, in suburban Kansas City, Mo., previously came under scrutiny for cost overruns and delays during the construction of the Tarakhil plant, a project plagued by so many problems that critics dubbed it “The White Elephant of Kabul.”

A spokesman for Black & Veatch said the company turned over the plant in excellent working condition to USAID.

“Our contract to provide operation and maintenance support ended on June 30, 2012,” Black & Veatch spokesman Patrick MacElroy said in a statement. “Since that time we have not provided operational support to the staff.”

MacElroy said Black & Veatch is proud of the work it did for USAID to increase overall power availability in Afghanistan.

A USAID official said in a statement on Tuesday that the Tarakhil power plant serves as a critical backup and peaking facility for Kabul in cases of high demand in the cold winter months, or failure of transmission lines that bring electricity from Central Asia.

“The Afghans use the plant regularly for this purpose, and it has helped them avoid massive blackouts,” said Russell Porter, director of the agency’s Strategic Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation Division for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Porter said USAID agrees with the inspector general’s recommendations to boost the plant’s capacity and is training Afghans to ensure they have the skills and knowledge to manage the facility.

“Since 2002, USAID and other international donors have helped the Afghans increase access to electricity by nearly 500 percent, including access for more than 2 million people in Kabul who now benefit from electric power 24 hours a day,” he said.

But in its audit, the USAID inspector general said that the amount of power available to Kabul on average is less than 48 percent of what the city needs. Residents of Kabul experienced at least 25 percent more power outages last winter than they did the year before, an Afghan official told auditors.

Email: lwise@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lindsaywise.

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