In a highly unprecedented move, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Tuesday ordered Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E) to stop the use of helicopters until their safe use can be assured in the utility’s massive $1.9 billion Sunrise Powerlink transmission line project, the combination utility’s largest infrastructure project in four decades.

SDG&E reacted by assuring that it will improve the helicopter and construction practices that were severely criticized by the CPUC’s energy division staff. The combination utility said it had already informed state regulators earlier this month that it was going to conduct a “safety standdown” to review the helicopter operations. That effort began Monday.

In a letter dated Tuesday, CPUC Energy Division Director Julie Fitch issued a stop-work order, citing eight incidents between Feb 12 and Monday this year involving helicopters that the regulatory commission alleged were apparently caused by pilot errors and mechanical and rigging failures. Among the incidents listed by Fitch are three rigging failures in the past eight days through Tuesday.

Under these circumstances, the CPUC project manager has the authorization to halt the whole construction project, but that has not been done at this time. SDG&E President/COO Michael Niggli said construction is continuing on the project’s nonhelicopter activities.

Since Sunrise Powerlink began construction late last year, SDG&E has touted the use of helicopters as a means to save time, costs and unwanted impact on the environment as part of constructing the 120-mile, 500-kV transmission line from Imperial County into the heart of the load center in North San Diego County.

Under strong opposition at times from communities along the route, SDG&E emphasized that the added transmission line would “support energy reliability in the region, help to spur further development of renewable energy generation in the Imperial Valley, provide new jobs in Imperial and San Diego counties and help to meet the state’s aggressive renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals” (see Daily GPI, Dec. 9, 2010).

The CPUC’s Fitch called the pattern of helicopter problems on the project “troubling,” noting that safety risks have been imposed on residents in both Imperial and San Diego counties. “Helicopter operations may resume only upon CPUC’s concurrence that the following remedial actions have been successfully implemented,” said Fitch, listing four actions, starting with the safety standdown involving pilots and other workers, rigging training sessions, restrictions on helicopter operations in other than tower assembly and wire work, and developing an incident reporting procedure to be reviewed and approved by the CPUC.

“We recognize the commission’s concerns about recent incidents,” said Niggli, reiterating that the utility gives safety top priority. “Our goal is to make any necessary changes to ensure helicopter operations for construction of [the project] proceeds safely for the benefit of our employees, contractors and the public. I am confident we can meet the CPUC’s additional requirements.”

The CPUC and the state’s major utilities have been operating under heightened scrutiny in the wake of the deadly San Bruno natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion for which federal authorities several criticized the pipeline operator, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and the CPUC’s oversight of the utility’s pipeline maintenance and safety programs (see Daily GPI, Sept. 27).

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