"I have called on the CPUC to hold a public meeting in Alpine to look the community in the eye and prove that lives and property are not at risk."
By Miriam Raftery
September 27, 2011 (San Diego’s East County)—Community leaders and residents in East County praised the California Public Utilities Commission for its decision yesterday to ground all helicopter activity on SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink due to serious safety incidents.
“I commend the CPUC for putting public safety first and grounding helicopter operations for this dangerous, fire-inducing monstrosity,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob said. “The CPUC must hold SDG&E accountable for its reckless antics and flagrant disregard for CPUC rules. The steady stream of equipment drops and unreported rotor strikes increases the chances of wildfire in communities that have already endured the 2003 and 2007 wildfires.”
Jacob has called on the CPUC to hold a public meeting in Alpine “to look the community in the eye and prove that lives and property are not at risk.”
Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Commission and a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed that seeks to halt Powerlink construction, called the decision “justified.”
She further alleged even more violations of mitigation requirements and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations not mentioned in the CPUC stop work order. “I’ve had people out here, in the backcountry and Ocotillo, complaining about helicopters flying over homes with loads and lack of dust control.” She added that area resident Jim Pelly has said that pilots were also “flying over off-road vehicle areas in the Plaster City area.”
Milt Cyphert of Lakeside, cofounder of the East County Community Action Coalition, another plaintiff suing to block the high-voltage power line. “I think it’s about time,” he said of the shut down order.
Cyphert said he and neighbors have filed complaints with the FAA (though not the CPUC) stating that SDG&E pilots have flown suspended loads over homes –a federal violation. “The suspended load that I saw them carrying was over other people’s houses in our valley,” said Cyphert, a former rigging instructor for the California pipe trades apprenticeship program who is familiar with aviation law and safe distances.
He told East County Magazine that SDG&E also violated regulations for non-loaded flights over his own home. “Right after they started doing helicopter operations full blast, they were flying directly over our house to the point where I could see the pilot’s faces through the windscreens….They were only 100 feet over my house, shuttling crews back and forth. Another neighbor, they were flying so close over his house they were knocking eucalyptus trees down into his dog house.” Cyphert added, “He went out and shook his fist at them and they flew closer. There was a lot of intimidation.”
After he and others complained to the FAA, Cyphert said the flights over homes in Lakeside’s El Monte Valley stopped and pilots used an alternate route over unoccupied land.
But in other areas, problems have persisted. Rock Canyon Vineyards' owner posted on ECM's Facebook page the same day the ban was imposed, "Wow...Earlier today (27th) we had to call the FAA twice-because SDG&E workers were flying their helicopters with huge loads (repeatedly)-not on the route, but right over our house and barns...We were outside flagging the helicopters to move away - and not only did they ignore us - but seemed to fly even closer to us with those loads."
Myles Thurman posted on ECM's Facebook page that "One flew over my house carrying a tractor. I hope this holds. It's about time they are stopped enough is enough."
Lou Russo, a member of the Alpine Community Planning Group, has indicating that at least one similar complaint of a helicopter flying a load over a home has been received by the ACPG.
Catherine Gorka is a parrot breeder who has been battling to persuade SDG&E to stop helicopter flights that she blames for the death of exotic birds at her outdoor aviaries, including birds that destroyed their own young in terror as a helicopter flew over and another bird that became paralyzed after panicking and flying into a cage wall.
“I’m thrilled,” Gorka said when told that a shut-down order for flights had been issued.
The order requires SDG&E to fulfill key safety requirements before any flights will be permitted back in the air, as ECM reported yesterday: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/7364 . Even after requirements are fulfilled, however, SDG&E will be limited to using helicopters only in areas inaccessible by roads, with the exception of tower assembly and wire operations. For other operations, the utility will have to rely on ground crews who will use vehicles to access areas via roadways.
Gorka hopes that land taken by SDG&E via eminent domain from her property for purposes of building a road may now see a roadway constructed to prevent future flights that could traumatize her birds. With cessation of the helicopters, she says, instead of cowering and hiding in their cages, “my birds are singing again.”
SDG&E president and chief operating officer Michael R. Niggli has issued a statement in response to the shut-down order.
“SDG&E is committed to improving all helicopter and construction practices related to the project and will comply with the additional training and incident reporting requirements contained in the CPUC’s order,” he said. Niggli maintains that the utility had already notified the CPUC of its intent to hold a `safety stand down’ to review its helicopter operations and that two such stand downs were held September 26 and 27 for its pilots, with additional sessions slated.
“In addition, we have been working on an updated incident reporting protocol to enhance and clarify the existing reporting process so all helicopter incidents are brought immediately to the attention of the CPUC and other appropriate regulating agencies.”
A San Diego Union-Tribune report last week revealed rotor accidents unreported to the CPUC, including flights that struck a boulder and fence post due to pilot error. One involved a pilot previously grounded due to a fatality accident. Other incidents that were reported included dropping two 16,000 pound tower sections due to mechanical failure, dropping other suspended loads including a compressor, and losing a helicopter skid.
Niggli insisted that maintaining safe construction practices is a top priority and that SDG&E will make necessary changes to improve safety of employees, contractors and the public and expressed confidence that the utility will meet the new CPUC requirements in order to resume flights. Construction on non-helicopter activities will continue, he added.