The Sunrise Powerlink has divided much of East County and greater San Diego, not only over questions about whether the transmission line is needed but also over the way the construction has unfolded.
San Diego Gas & Electric says the project is a critical upgrade to the its network and will import a wave of renewable energy. During construction, the company repeatedly has been cited for violating terms of its construction permit.
In September, after an unusual spate of violations and rotor strikes, state regulators grounded the helicopter fleet being used to build portions of the 117-mile, $1.9 billion high-voltage power line.
The suspension was quickly lifted after the utility agreed to increase safety training and meet other demands from the California Public Utilities Commission.
Since flights were reinstated in early October, state monitors have logged 42 more incidents, including violations and non-compliance reports. Utility officials say they are committed to public safety and meeting the responsibilities imposed on the project by regulators.
“The Sunrise Powerlink is the first transmission line to be built with such a high level of environmental awareness, mitigation requirements and has done more than any project in California history in protecting sensitive species and reducing impacts to the environment,” spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp said. “The magnitude of the project and whether the violations materialized into any substantive impacts must be considered.”
Here is a closer look at some of the notices issued by the state Public Utilities Commission along with the company’s response:
October to January
State: Sunrise Powerlink construction crews committed at least nine separate violations of Peninsular Big Horn Sheep habitat restrictions. The incidents include incursions into 1,500-foot buffer zones where the federally protected mammals are grazing. Some violations result from helicopters flying too low near the ground where sheep are present.
Response: : The project employs numerous biologists who serve as spotters for the sheep before the start of construction. During work, the spotters scan the terrain for sheep and radio in stop-work orders when sheep are seen nearby. Sheep move around throughout the day, complicating the practice. “On several occasions, flight crews entered the buffer zone before they received the radio call of the sheep being present. … In all of these incidents, no sheep were harmed or harassed in any way.”
State: Transmission wire plunged to the ground between towers during stringing operations east of Alpine. “No resources were found to be damaged, hurt or killed.”
Response: : The wirepulling was halted until the site was inspected and found to be safe. “Environmental monitors were on-site and immediately determined that there was no impact to the surrounding environment in any way.”
State: An unknown type of bird slams into a helicopter flying near Barrett Lake. “Monitors on board believed the bird to be a swallow, but no remains were found to confirm.”
Response: : The bird has been identified as a white-throated swift by an avian biologist who was onboard moments before impact. The strike was unavoidable due to the “rapid swooping flight patterns exhibited by this species.” White-throated swifts are not a protected species, so there was no obligation to report the event, but the strike was nonetheless reported to utility regulators and the California Department of Fish and Game.
State: A helicopter flying 400 feet above a construction yard near Potrero dropped an air compressor in mid-flight. No injuries or damage to property occurred. Investigation to helicopter hook system is ongoing.
Response: : The helicopter was immediately grounded and a preliminary review showed the hook system failed. “The hook assembly system has been sent back to its manufacturer for further investigation and a new hook assembly system design has been ordered for this helicopter.” The company inspected the hooking systems of all similar aircraft to avoid any repeat failure.
State: Tower assembly, erection and wire stringing work is suspended for most towers in the Cleveland National Forest because SDG&E was not complying with tower colors required by its construction permit.
Response: : U.S. officials wanted three shades of gray for the 76 towers on Cleveland National Forest property rather than the traditional galvanized steel. “Due to conflicting documentation and a misunderstanding about agreed Forest Service direction, SDG&E placed 10 of the standard galvanized steel towers on Forest Service land instead of the dark gray color towers, resulting in the noncompliance report.”
State: A Sunrise Powerlink helicopter landed in an unapproved area.
Response: : In seeking to drop passengers near a “tower staging access pad” on U.S. Forest Service property near Carveacre, the pilot was unable to locate the approved landing zone. He radioed for help and saw a man motioning him to land in an area with existing skid marks indicating a previous landing. “For safety reasons due to windy conditions, the pilot opted to land at the safe clearing nearby the TSAP location instead of continuing the search for the landing site.”
State: A door fell off a helicopter during operations near the Sunrise Powerlink construction yard at Plaster City. No one was reported injured as a result of the accident.
Response: : Transmission-line inspection protocols require and allow a sliding back door to be locked in an open position; CPUC, Federal Aviation Administration and other regulators were notified of the accident immediately. “The incident occurred near the project right-of-way where there was no imminent risks posed to persons or property.”