WASHINGTON ― U.S.-led power grid improvements meant to provide electricity to Afghan towns are not operational due to mismanagement by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported Wednesday.
The North East Power System project heaped failure on failure, potentially wasting the project’s $60 million price tag, according to SIGAR. USACE failed to secure the rights to the land where the power lines were to be built, which led the Afghan contractor to build haphazardly around Afghan homes. USACE also failed to include a contract provision to permanently connect some improvements to a power-source.
USACE awarded a $116 million firm-fixed-priced contract to the Afghan Zwakman Nabizai Construction Company, or ZNCC, to design and build the project’s second and third phases.
But the problems were in the third phase: Construction of 5.6 miles of 220-kilovolt power transmission lines from Charikar substation in Parwan province to Gulbahar in Kapisa province; 26.1 miles of 110-kilovolt power transmission lines from Gulbahar to Nejrab in Kapisa province; and a new power substation in Gulbahar to connect both sets of transmission lines.
The report found that despite signing a memorandum of understanding with the Afghan government to wait for the government to acquire the necessary private land for the project before construction began, USACE issued ZNCC multiple limited clearances to begin construction.
The contract required ZNCC remove trees, houses, barns, cattle sheds and other structures within 41 feet of the transmission lines, but transmission lines were built directly above some Afghan homes.
Moreover, the report found the contract did not include a provision to connect the Charikar and Nejrab substations, ostensibly the purpose of the project.
In March 2017, ZNCC submitted a proposal to construction a temporary connection, or T-connection, between transmission lines and the substation, which was approved by the USACE. Yet, the report finds proposal included sketches that did not accurately reflect the Charikar substation’s configuration or the power lines coming from the substation.
ZNCC connected the substation to an outgoing power that was not energized, meaning key infrastructure could not be fully tested and commissioned or become fully operational.
The T-connection may pose a risk to the Charikar’s substation’s operation because the connection does not have basic safety or protective electrical equipment like circuit breakers.
And if issues at the Charikar substation seem severe, they are better than the Nejrab station, which was not connected to transmission lines.
Due to the vagueness of the contract, which only states ZNCC should “deliver power” to the station, little guidance was provided as to how power would be delivered and connected to the station. As such, the company did not connection the transmission lines and contractually are not obligated to.
Though the Afghan government intends to fund the construction of a permanent connection, officials from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Electricity and Water told SIGAR the funding will likely not be available for several years. Afghan officials are worried that during the time it takes to receive funding the substations and other equipment may be stolen, not fully tested before the warranty expires and degrade.
On top of these problems, the infrastructure itself may be structurally unsound. SIGAR found that ZNCC built three of the 18 transmission towers on embankments of loose soil and without retaining walls. These embankments will likely erode over time due to wind, rain and snow, according to the report, causing the towers to collapse.
Additionally, ZNCC failed to install nine adequately certified fire-rated doors in the Gulbahar substation and stored 136 acid batteries in room that cannot be properly vented of hydrogen gas, increasing the risk of an explosion.
USACE officials told SIGAR they had ethical concerns about handing over the project to the Afghan government because the feared the government would “flip the switch” to energize the infrastructure without properly testing the system and ensuring residents living under transmission lines had vacated the land.
Despite these concerns, the project was transferred from USACE to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan on Feb. 3, 2018, who on the same day gave control of the project to Ministry of Water and Electricity.
The report suggests the USACE examine all transmission towers to ensure their foundations were built in accordance with the contract standards and direct ZNCC to correct deficient foundations; direct ZNCC to construct retaining walls to stabilize transmission towers near embankments; determine whether the installed fire doors meet contract requirements and direct ZNCC to replace those that do not meet the standards; and ensure the acid batteries in the Gulbahar substation are stored in a properly ventilated and cooled environment to reduce the risk of an explosion.
SIGAR also recommended the USACE conduct an internal review to determine why its contracting officials omitted contract requirements to permanently connect phase three to the rest of Afghanistan’s power grid and granted clearances for ZNCC to proceed with construction before acquiring the requisite land rights.