Nation & World

Watchdog: U.S.-funded power plant in Afghanistan at risk of ‘catastrophic failure'

A U.S.-funded power plant in Afghanistan is in danger of catastrophic failure, according to a letter to be released Thursday by a government watchdog.

The $335 million Tarakhil power plant, near Kabul, was built as a joint venture by engineering firm Black & Veatch of Overland Park, Kan., and its then-partner Louis Berger Group, under a contract awarded by the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2007.

Nicknamed “The White Elephant of Kabul,” Tarakhil has long been plagued by cost overruns, delays and operational problems.

Now the plant is “severely underutilized,” according to a letter from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction to USAID.

The letter, dated Aug. 7, is part of an ongoing inquiry by the special inspector general, which has been monitoring developments at the Tarakhil plant for years to see whether Afghans can better utilize the U.S. taxpayer-funded facility.

The letter notes that Tarakhil’s power production between February 2014 and April 2015 was less than 1 percent of its production capacity, a further drop from July 2010 to December 2013, when the plant’s output was 2.2 percent of its capacity.

Contributing to the problem is the fact that Tarakhil can only run on diesel fuel, which is expensive and dangerous to transport in Afghanistan.

Intermittent use of the plant “has resulted in more frequent starts and stops, which place greater wear and tear on the machinery,” the letter said, quoting findings by USAID’s own inspector general.

‘Premature failure’

The damage has led to “premature failure” of equipment, raising maintenance costs over time and increasing the risk that the plant could suffer “catastrophic failure,” according to the letter.

In a statement, Black & Veatch referred all questions about the Tarakhil plant to its client, USAID.

“Black & Veatch is proud of the work we performed to bring power generating capacity to Afghanistan,” the statement said.

A USAID spokesman defended the project in a written reply to questions from McClatchy.

“In Kabul, the diesel-fueled Tarakhil power plant is now used as a back-up power facility that supplies electricity when lower cost sources of energy like hydroelectric and imported energy from the surrounding region is unavailable,” said the spokesman, Ben Edwards, in the statement.

As an example, USAID cites an incident on Feb. 23, when an avalanche disabled power transmission lines to Kabul. The Tarakhil plant provided about 10 percent of Kabul’s electricity until March 10, when the lines were partially restored, according to USAID.

The agency also has helped Afghans operate and maintain the plant “by establishing a new computerized maintenance management system, providing extensive training to staff, and overseeing current operations and maintenance of the plant,” Edwards said.

Critics of the project remain unconvinced of Tarakhil’s usefulness. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a senior member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the plant was an “egregious waste” that could have been prevented.

McCaskill wrote to USAID last year, demanding answers on the cost and sustainability of the project.

“This report once again highlights USAID’s lack of oversight in ensuring hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars weren’t wasted on infrastructure which, from the start of construction, had little hope of operating at full production – a fact USAID was fully aware of at the time,” said McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and former state auditor.