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State lawmakers pass meteorological tower safety bill

SACRAMENTO – Legislation setting stricter standards for marking meteorological towers after a fatal plane crash on a Delta island last year awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

The bill, approved by the state Assembly on Thursday, requires that all such towers 50 feet and taller be clearly marked.

On Jan. 10, 2011, agricultural pilot Stephen Allen was killed on Webb Tract in Contra Costa County after his airplane struck a 198-foot tower that he likely did not see, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.

Federal law requires that towers 200 feet and taller be painted in bright aviation colors and lit. Towers shorter than 200 feet fall under the purview of local governments.

Stories by this newspaper after Allen’s death raised questions about the standards for marking meteorological towers, and the risk posed to pilots by unmarked towers of any kind. Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, sponsored the bill after learning about the circumstances of Allen’s death while aerially spreading seed. The tower Allen struck was erected in 2009.

“His death was avoidable. California has the highest renewable energy portfolio, and we have to ensure that industry is responsible in what we all seek, but it shouldn’t be put ahead of human life,” Yamada said.

Assembly Bill 511 changes the state’s public utilities code and requires that all meteorological towers 50 to 200 feet tall built after Jan. 1, 2013, are marked with
thick alternating stripes of orange and white paint, orange tracking balls attached to each support wire, and a clear marking on the ground where the wires are anchored, including sleeves at each anchor point.

However, initial language in the bill requiring that a light be placed that the highest point of each tower has been dropped. The adopted bill makes a tower light optional.

The bill has a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2018.

“We’re very excited to see some kind of markings be required, and we’re hopeful the governor will sign it,” said Terry Gage, president of the California Agricultural Aviation Association.

The towers, some of which are only 12 inches wide, pose a significant safety threat, Gage said.

“If we can see the structures, it becomes much easier to avoid them,” she said.

Yamada worked for almost two years to overcome opposition from wind energy lobbyists.

Wind farm developers use the towers to measure currents to find the best locations for new wind farms.

Gary Del Carlo, owner of Haley Flying Service in Tracy, added: “Unfortunately, it took the death of Steve Allen and a couple others to bring this to a head.”

Before Allen’s fatal crash, there had been no efforts to stop the quick placement of towers, Del Carlo said.

Contra Costa’s Department of Conservation and Development is working on an ordinance that would establish procedures and conditions for where meteorological towers can be placed, said deputy director Aruna Bhat. The county’s review was prompted by this newspaper’s coverage of Allen’s death. The ordinance will go before the county planning commission in October.