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CPUC finds SDG&E in violation of two mitigation requirements, following ECM video documentation

 By Miriam Raftery

April 6, 2011 (Lakeside) – Last month, East County Magazine published video by Billy Ortiz showing a helicopter pilot working on Sunrise Powerlink flying close to nesting golden eagles in the El Monte Valley on March 9.  We forwarded our video to appropriate regulatory authorities.  

Now SDG&E has admitted in a buffer incident report submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that a pilot for its subcontractor, PAR Electric, violated the 4,000 foot eagle buffer zone three times on March 9.  The buffer zone is required as mitigation in the project EIR/EIS.

The utility company claims the pilot did so because he thought he heard someone calling for help, though hikers and a videographer who recorded the incident did not report hearing any distress calls. 

SDG&E has agreed to take several steps to prevent a recurrence.  According to the company's  incident report:  "PAR has removed this pilot from further work on the project. PAR’s helicopter pilots, including its subcontractor pilots, are now required to undergo a specialized training course that includes: (i) flying to and from job sites; (ii) flight corridors; (iii) eagle nest flight restrictions; and (iv) procedures for ground emergencies. Pilots successfully completing this training receive a helmet sticker, and, without this sticker, the pilot will not be permitted to take off and fly for this project. These pilots are also now required to participate in a pre-flight tailgate meeting to discuss hazards and other information (e.g., restricted or sensitive areas and emergency protocols) prior to the start of each flying day. Moreover, all helicopters will have Trac Plus installed. Trac Plus allows real-time, latitude and longitude tracking of each helicopter, which information is transmitted to a joint helicopter command center at PAR... The combination of the Trac Plus and GPS system will allow PAR to alert a pilot in the event he or she comes near a buffer zone or other restricted area."

SDG&E's admission follows a March 15, 2011 project memorandum from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for the "unauthorized helicopter operations within the Golden Eagle Buffer located in the vicinity of El Cajon [El Capitan] Mountain."  CPUC's memorandum stated that SDG&E violated two mitigation measures, flying 1,600 feet inside the 4,000 foot buffer zone and secondly, doing so during the eagle's known breeding season (December through June) without a survey by a biologist or pre-approval by wildlife agencies.  The CPUC demanded corrective action by SDG&E to prevent such incidents in the future and submittal of incident reports to the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, California Dept. of Fish & Game, and the CPUC.

SDG&E has maintained that its helicopter did not, however, have any direct contact with eagles.

An injured eagle was found and photographed along the same ridgeline several days before the SDG&E violation. That eagle’s mate has been missing since a videotaped encounter with another helicopter operated by the San Diego Sheriff’s department.  ECM photographer Billy Ortiz shot that video, illustrating the dangers that helicopters can pose to eagles in the area.

His video shows two eagles that appear to be caught in the downdraft immediately above where the wounded eagle was found.  Ortiz also filmed SDG&E’s helicopters in the same vicinity, where there are several known eagle nests, several days later. 

The same helicopters had been operating in the area on previous days, making it impossible to be certain how the wounded eagle was injured or whether one of these heliciopters may have killed the eagle that is now missing.  It is also unknown whether the disruption impacted other nesting eagles or their young.

View ECM’s videos of the helicopter-eagle incidents and our original report here:

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