Owner attributes deaths to helicopter flyovers for SDG&E Sunrise Powerlink Construction
“The mitigation will be handled by the courts. Well by then, they will all be dead.” – Catherine Gorka, Pampered Parrots owner
“SDG&E should do the right thing TODAY to protect these endangered birds, up to and including relocating the birds to a safe location...It is unconscionable that they would knowingly allow the deaths to occur instead of proactively doing the right thing.” – Laura Cyphert, East County Community Action Coalition
August 11, 2011 (Lakeside) – “The house was shaking. It terrified me,” Catherine Gorka, owner of Pampered Parrots in Lakeside’s El Monte Valley, recalls the first flyover above her home and aviaries by an SDG&E helicopter working on Sunrise Powerlink on February 25, 2011. “I was waiving my arms, calling out for them to stop.”
When the shaking stopped and Gorka ran inside her aviary, she found a horrifying scene. “Everything died. All the eggs and all the babies,” she said, fighting down tears.
One chick survived, only to succumb the next day, she added. More deaths have occurred since then as flyovers continue—and now SDG&E wants to wait for a court to rule this fall on potential mitigation, keeping endangered species at risk as the flights continue.
That first flyover occurred in the height of breeding season, when the aviary had produced more than 50 eggs and chicks slated for sale to specialty pet stores, including endangered species that Gorka breeds. Some chicks were killed or eaten by their own parents amid the melee, with losses totaling over $50,000 from that February day alone, according to Gorka.
But the deadly day was only the beginning of her battle to save her birds. View a video interview with Gorka (or scroll down to bottom of story).
Although some route changes have reportedly been made by SDG&E, flyovers continue close to the aviaries. More rare and valuable birds have died, some by panicking and flying against cage bars. Others have been so traumatized that they are too frightened to come out of their boxes, or drop to the ground when they see or hear a helicopter approaching. Many are plucking out their feathers and even self-mutilating.
“Two years of this?” Gorka asks, anger flashing in her eyes as she envisions the devastation yet to come with another year and a half of Powerlink construction slated.
Gorka has been raising exotic birds for decades and says she’s never had such issues before. Pet stores won’t buy the birds in such poor condition, she says, so she has lost her income. Both Gorka and her mother, who resides on the property, are battling health conditions and the income is sorely needed.
A string of e-mails documents her months of thus-far futile efforts to keep SDG&E’s helicopters behind the ridgeline, a safe distance away from her birds.
SDG&E instigated eminent domain proceedings to take a portion of her property for its high-voltage powerlines. “They’ve taken all my view property,” Gorka says, grimacing. “My son doesn’t want to build his house up there anymore. Who wants to live by power lines humming all day?”
Now her battle centers on one goal: saving her remaining birds. “They’re my passion,” she explains. “I know all these birds by name….It’s terrible to see.” She has harsh words for SDG&E and claims the utility has repeatedly broken its word and thus far failed to provide even notification of flyovers or a map of the no-fly zone. “They won’t even do anything to stop this,” she said. “They just don’t care.”
SDG&E would not return calls or e-mails from East County Magazine requesting an interview on this issue. This week, Todd Voorhees from SDG&E did meet with Gorka, along with a representative of Aspen Environmental Group, the environmental consulting firm under contract with the California Public Utilities Commiission (CPUC) to monitor the Sunrise Powerlink project. Gorka asked ECM to be present as a neutral observer to document the meeting, but Voorhees adamently insisted he would cancel the meeting if a media outlet was present. Laura Cyphert, a neighbor of Gorka’s and founder of the East County Community Action Coalition, was permitted to stay and observe the meeting.
In an e-mail sent subsequently, Fritts Golden with Aspen informed Gorka that based on the meeting, the California Public Utilities Commission will have a noise expert come to the property to assess sound measurements and propose measures to reduce helicopter sound levels. CPUC may also direct SDG&E to take specific actions. In addition, he wrote, “We are identifying an avian expert to review the effect of noise and visibility of helicopters on parrots and other exotic birds.”
ECM contacted the California Public Utilities Commission. Terri Prosper, director of news and public information for the CPUC, responded that “I understand that SDG&E is working with Ms. Gorka trying to resolve the issue and have reached an agreement regarding establishing a no-fly zone…a map is being prepared of the no-fly zone location.”
But Cyphert and Gorka say that no satisfactory agreement has been reached. Both insist that SDG&E’s actions will be too little, too late—and more birds will die unless prompt enforcement efforts are made by the CPUC.
Gorka has been objecting to the Powerlink since she first learned about the project. She has attended numerous meetings, each time voicing her concerns over the impact on her birds. Like many Lakesiders, she is outraged that SDG&E won approval for the project from the CPUC without adequately noticing Lakeside residents, many of whom were shocked to learn of the approval and vocally objected on grounds ranging from fire safety to destruction of a county-designated scenic view corridor.
A wildfire survivor, she also fears Powerlink places her property at higher risk of a fire caused by the lines or those working on it directly above her home.
She has fought to get SDG&E to keep its helicopters over the ridge behind her home, out of sight of the birds. Sheriff and Cal-Fire helicopters have routinely been seen flying behind the ridge, valley residents say. But SDG&E insists safety concerns require them to take the most direct route—encroaching on Gorka’s property.
In an email sent after the meeting to Supervisor Dianne Jacobs, who has been working to try and help Gorka get resolution to the problem, Gorka wrote: “What I found out is their no fly zone will not keep my birds safe at all. I also found out that even though Aspen was aware of my facility no mitigation plans were put in place so no pretty much my birds are perishable. There are no penalties if a pilot flies into the no fly zone, no one is watching over, really.”
Cyphert confirmed that “SDG&E stated that they had evaluated other flight paths and determined that for safety reasons they cannot accommodate any other flight plan except one that comes within 1,000 feet of Catherine’s property. As a result, I believe it is accurate to state that it is understood by all oparties that the current flight plan will still result in significant impacts to the endangered parrots, and per Catherine’s statement, could lead to their predictable deaths.”
Gorka told ECM, “One thousand feet is nothing. The birds will fly into cages and break their necks…I need to build sound proofing. There’s got to be mitigation.” She seeks donations of shade cloth and a lawyer willing to represent her in a lawsuit against SDG&E, though she has little money.
SDG&E, meanwhile, seeks to force mitigation to be determined by the courts, Cyphert said, adding that the utility representative “refuses to discuss directly with Catherine. Because the court date is in October, this presumably means that SDG&E will (in the meantime) continue with activities that it knows will cause the death of Catherine’s endangered birds. They are in effect doing nothing to stop the death of the birds.” Instead, the utility wants Gorka to file a claim for her losses “including losses which have not yet occurred,” Cyphert said.
She added in an e-mail sent to ECM, “It is my very strong opinion that SDG&E should do the right thing TODAY to protect these endangered birds, up to and including relocating the birds to a safe location, until such time as their construction is completed. It is unconscionable that they would knowingly allow the deaths to occur instead of proactively doing the right thing.”
Click below to view ECM's interview with Catherine Gorka: