By Miriam Raftery
Photos by Dennis Richardson
June 10, 2011 (San Diego)—Just four days after its sky crane dropped a Sunrise Powerlink tower 200 feet, a second transmission line tower has toppled in the Imperial Valley.
Following last Monday’s accident, SDG&E promised in a press release that the company was “taking immediate steps…to investigate what occurred today in order to ensure that this does not happen again.”
But it did happen again. Today at 8 a.m., the Sun Bird Erickson Air Crane helicopter was placing the fifth of five towers near Plaster City when three of the helicopter’s four hooks released. Dangling by just one hook, the 15,000 pound tower was lowered to the ground and released, where it tipped over. Fourtunately, no one was injured in either incident. But residents of East County, where construction of Powerlink is also underway, are voicing concerns over safety of workers and the public.
“These recent accidents are unacceptable,” said Mike Nigglie, SDG&E’s president and chief operating officer. A new air crane will be provided by Erickson and the Sun Bird helicopter will not be participating in equipment lifting activities pending an investigation.
However the investigation after last Monday’s accident ended with the company given the go-ahead to resume construction—not exactly a reassuring prospect to critics of the project. They raise concerns about the prospect of a similar accident once Powerlink construction begins in more populated areas such as El Monte Valley in Lakeside, where the utility company’s helicopters have routinely buzzed low over homes.
“SDG&E must not be allowed to continue construction on this project after the second failure in a week,” said Ray Lutz, founder of the watchdog group Citizens Oversight and moderator of an online discussion forum on Sunrise Powerlink. “Apparently, they are rushing to install this transmission line and gambling on our safety, and the safety of residents and anyone who may be near or under the construction project and indeed, workers who are involved.”
SDG&E has previously said the highway was closed during the first incident as a safety precaution; the second occurred in a utility yard. The utility, owned by Sempra Energy, has not responded to interview requests for this story.
But Lutz is unconvinced of the project’s safety. “ How can three of four hooks `release’? “ he asked. “How can a company that just dropped a whole tower section, drop another one three days later,” he asked, also raising questions over why SDG&E was cleared to resume construction after the first accident.” An opponent of the Powerlink, he added, “This must be escalated and a full review conducted regarding safety of this project.”
Departure of the Sunbird sky crane also raises concern about fire protection, since SDG&E had promised the Sunbird would be available to fight fires if needed--including fires that could be started by the high-voltage Powerlink line. How any such fire would be extinguished now is an issue as fire season approaches and San Diego's backcountry faces prospects of severe wildfires due to heavy rains that have increased levels of dry brush.
East County Magazine has contacted the California Public Utilities Commission media office to inquire what steps the CPUC intends to take to assure that workers and the public are protected from such construction accidents.
Donna Tisdale, a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to stop the Powerlink, says she happened to be in Imperial County when the first accident occurred and visited the site an hour after the tower crashed to the ground.
“What a mess,” she said in an e-mail sent to a backcountry discussion forum. “They are really lucky that someone was not hurt. The tower section crashed just a few feet from the road and looked like it may have even skidded across one lane of Old 80 (Evan Hewes highway),” she noted. “All of this is taking place on federal BLM land.”
She and other plaintiffs are hoping for their day in court for a motion for preliminary injunction and summary judgment to halt construction. Two hearings have been cancelled and there have been numerous recusals and removals of judges, delaying prospects for stopping the project.
“We are now on judge number four” said Tisdale. “The BLM told the last judge that SDG&E had made a business decision to move forward at their own risk prior to a court decision. They are building towers as fast as they can!!” the frustrated plaintiff observed. “Only McCain Valley and the Forest route [under control of the U.S. Forest Service] are currently a no-go zone.”