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Hidroituango, failed engineering, wrong decision-making, or simple ambition?

The construction of this project was granted in August of 2012 to a Consortium CCC Ituango (Camargo Correa, Conconcreto, and Coninsa Ramón H). By December of 2015, the project was already delayed by almost 20 months, so EPM and the consortium signed an acceleration plan and an incentive for Col $ 70,000M if they achieved the goal.

The delay was justified by topics related to land purchasing, building access roads (difficult terrain), public order issues, and construction difficulties in sluice gate wells.

Technical origin of the problem

In March of 2014, the Cauca River was diverted by a dam tunnel, which was delivered without the original sluice gate design which finally led to the known emergency.

Read more: Closing the sluice gates at Hidroituango impacted the river flow of the Cauca River.

Why weren’t the originally engineered sluice gates for the diversion tunnels manufactured? The answer cannot be attributed to the geology of the area, which needs to be known in detail in a project of this size, highlighting that in any rocky environment it is possible to carry out construction, and especially sluice gates. Diverting the river in tunnels without sluice gates was an EPM decision that needed to be supported, emphasizing that the approval of this modification of the original engineering, besides deviating the river, should be known, authorized, and approved by EPM as the owner of the project.

Diverting the river was urgent and that prevailed over technical aspects.

The solution to the sluice gate issue and project set-up for damming was “solved” with the later design and construction of an auxiliary gallery (GAD), that would have sluice gates and the structure for bottom discharge which was original design of the diversion tunnels. According to a 2018Comptrollers report, constructing the GAD began 13 months before the modification authorization license was even approved.

In September of 2017, the diversion tunnel was plugged and partial operation of the GAD began; in March of the following year, the right diversion tunnel was also plugged and the GAD entered in operation, just before April, the rainy season in Colombia.

The project passed from having two diversion tunnels to just one, a risky move, similar to when playing poker you are all-in. This proved to be the wrong decision in April of 2018 which led to the collapse of the GAD, the unplugging, plugging, and unplugging of the diversion tunnel, and the non-programmed filling of the reservoir and diversion of the river through the powerhouse.

Eagerness, money, and interests above engineering

The decision to speed up the project to have the reservoir ready for July of 2018 and produce energy by November was carried out for not losing the benefits of the reliability charge provided to the project. If the Colombian Energy and Gas Regulation Commission (CREG, for its Spanish acronym) proclaimed an “unsolvable and serious noncompliance”, the fines and associated marketing matters would mean a sum of Col $ 3.3B that should be paid by EPM.

Read more: The challenges after Hidroituango (in Spanish).

To incentivize the companies linked to the project, they added an extra Col $70,000M if the timetable was fulfilled.

Amid the urgency and the incentives –added to the possibility of before terminating his term, former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos would be in charge of initiating the filling of the reservoir, creating a scenario that facilitated decision-making, making the economic factor taking precedence not only over the technical aspects but over the engineering risks and the overall safety of the project.

General considerations

The wrong decisions taken by EPM were supported by the designers, contractors, and supervisors.

As of today, EPM has between US $2,500 and 3,000M in favor of the emergency cause (revenue not received, work to finish, and contingency attention) to which they need to add the costs derived from the undue decisions that the Mayor of Medellín, Daniel Quintero has taken lately, placing EPM and the project in question with companies, investment banks, and insurance companies.

Hidroituango was designed at the appropriate location on the Cauca Canyon, where the geology, the geotechnics, and rock are complex, like in other areas in Colombia, but this does not hinder executing the project, they just have to perform the adequate exploration and correct treatment of faults or fractured rocks, with amply known solutions.

In turn, what cannot be requested is asking a massif or rock to support conditions above their limitations, particularly when the massifs are not adequately excavated and protected for eventual requirements. Therefore, geology was not the Hidroituango issue.

Since April of 2018, what happened at Hidroituango may be recreated in three popular sayings:

  1. You get what you pay for: Especially associated with contractors that carried out the project between 2013 and 2015, which were cheap, with no experience, executed wrongly, and delayed the project.
  2. Either do it right or don't do it at all: After 2015 and after signing the acceleration plan, many things were overseen, prevailing compliance to dates, underestimating the technical threats, and the comprehensive care for the project.
  3. Grasp all, lose all: The commercial and generation commitments of EPM, added to the Col $70,000M incentive for certain companies led to high-risk decision-making, where the economy prevailed over the technical and functional aspect of the project, including plugging the original tunnels and diverting the river through the GAD.



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