Roundtable: SDG&E Choppers Grounded, Prison Realignment & Local Tribe Standoff
September 30, 2011 4:25 p.m.
We look at this week's grounding of SDG&E helicopters working on the Sunrise Powerlink project, prison realignment affecting San Diego and a local tribe standoff over a lease.
CAVANAUGH: SDG&E is forced to ground its helicopters, and black water is back in the news. This is KPBS Midday Edition Roundtable.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Friday, September 30th. There was a scare this morning at Carlsbad area schools. That scare may be over as we speak. But Carlsbad police reported that Carlsbad school officials received an unanimous e-mail about 11:30 this morning that a gunman was on an unspecified campus. So as a precaution, the district decided to lock down schools thought the district. No suspicious person has been reported, and police say they have no suspicious persons that have been seen at all. Unconfirmed reports from twitter that the lockdown has been lifted. Right now, we'll bring you more on this story as it continues here on KPBS. And KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma is here today to tell us about news that a former San Diego based cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki has been killed in Yemen. Who are his ties to San Diego?
SHAMRA: Al-Awlaki came to San Diego in 1996. He had an under graduate degree in civil engineering. He came here to San Diego state university to study education, to get his masters degree in education. Around 2,000 or late 1999, he became the Imam at the al-rabat mosque in La Mesa. And it is there that Al-Awlaki actually held regular, private meetings with two of the September 11th hijackers who actually helped fly the plane into the Pentagon on September 11th. And intelligence officials believed those meetings were spiritual counseling sessions, sort of preparing these two men for the attacks and absolving them of their sins. It was a San Diego agent, in fact, a federal agent, who actually pushed for Al-Awlaki to be arrested when he left San Diego and was planning to return to the United States in 22. At the last moment, that arrest warrant was lifted.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what are you hearing from our local Muslim community with this killing?
SHAMRA: Well, they say, look, we're mainstream Muslims, we condemn what Al-Awlaki stood for, what he preached. However, they're concerned about what they're describing as an extra judicial killing. They're saying it would have been much, much better if the U.S. government had actually charmed Al-Awlaki, he was a U.S. citizen, and captured him, arrested him, brought him back and basically held a trial for him.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much, Amita.
SHAMRA: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You can hear more about this story from Amita Sharma on KPBS evening edition at 6:30 on KPBS television.
And let me introduce my guests at today's Midday Edition Roundtable. Allison Saint John is senior metro reporter at KPBS news. Hi Allison.
ST. JOHN: Great to be here, Maureen
CAVANAUGH: Jeff MacDonalds is watch dog reporter at the San Diego Union Tribune. Jeff, hello.
MACDONALD: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Dave moss is a reporter with San Diego City beat. Good afternoon, Dave
MOSS: Good afternoon.
CAVANAUGH: Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. Dave you're our go-to go on this story. It pits a contractor against an impoverished American Indian tribe in San Diego County. And it involves black water, eviction notices, and claims of bam boozel. . An issue is the eagle rock training center established in 2010 as a high-level combat training center on land near warner springs. Could you tell us a little bit more about this facility? What's its intended purpose? Well, accounts of it differ, it depends on what commercial you're looking at. One is a sort of film shooting location, which they have been trying to promote more and more lately. A lot of it is marine training, maybe seal training, combat conditions, a lot of off-road driving and actually on-road driving as well. So a lot of military training I would say
CAVANAUGH: And what's the connection to black water?
MOSS: Well, one of the founders of the eagle rock training center is Brian bunfiglio, who was a BP of black water USA and had been with Eric prince here years early trying to set up a similar facility
CAVANAUGH: So the facilities are similar to the ones that black water wanted to bring into San Diego County?
MOSS: Generally speaking, yes.
CAVANAUGH: How did it get leased at eagle rock?
MOSS: Well, it's a bit difficult to tell. I think this is still a bit of a mystery. According to the documents that we have, around March, 2010, the chair woman of the tribe at the time signed a six-year lease saying, yeah, for 10% we can lease you some land to do this. By November, it had turned into a 25-year lease. Same deal, 10%, but this time they were going to kick in a playground and a 1,200-square foot office building. Then come January, he's bootedow of the chair woman seat and replaced. That's when you start to see these concerns arrived
CAVANAUGH: I see. And what band of Indians is this?
MOSS: The Los coyotos
CAVANAUGH: So the change of heart came with a change of leadership?
MOSS: Around the same time, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: And has the tribe tried to evict eastboundel rock from the reservation?
MOSS: As of about June, they issue aid notice to vacate, basically saying you have 30 days to get off our land. That dead lineup came and went and they extended it for about two weeks, and that's when this A son, which we'll talk about, happened. But as of earlier this month, beginning of September, they sent them a notice saying you got to get out, the police chief for the tribe sent them a letter saying we're going to forcibly kick you out. And that's when eagle rock decided to file a lawsuit
CAVANAUGH: I want to open this up to everybody on the Roundtable. Why is San Diego County so attractive to blackwater and the phones of blackwater it seems?
ST. JOHN: Well, I know that when they were originally trying to get a training facility out on interstate eight, campus direction, they said that because there are a lot of military installations in San Diego, there's a lot of people who need the training, and law enforcement, it's difficult for them to get shooting ranges in urban areas. So there was also a big market for law enforcement looking for places to practice shooting. So that was their rationale for looking for a place in this area. And San Diego is known as being sympathetic toward military interests. So perhaps they thought that some counties wouldn't like this kind of facility. But perhaps San Diego would be open to it.
CAVANAUGH: How much of an organization, how much of a facility do they have there that would need to be evicted off that property?
MOSS: I wasn't one of the folks who actually got to go out and see it. And I wanted to give a shout-out to J. Hairy Jones for what I think was the gut of the year, randomly wandering upon this facility while on a ride-along. All I've seen is what the TV stations and the Union Tribune have. But it looks fairly big. And based on the maps that have been filed of this lawsuit, it did look like it took a large chunk of the reservation. And the plans they had to build an off -- an entire sort of race track out there as well. So firing ranges, office buildings, all sorts of stuff.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you mentioned the lawsuit. What is eagle rock arguing in the lawsuit?
MOSS: Eagle rock is saying we have a lease. You signed a lease, we've got it, you also signed away your tribal immunity from federal courts, so we're going to sue you in federal court. That's what that they're claiming
ST. JOHN: Eagle rock that used to be blackwater was hoping they'd find an easier route to getting what they were looking for with tribal land. They couldn't get the support of the supervisors to get the training facility earlier out on eight, so they thought, hey, here's a reservation. Maybe this'll be easier. If they had done their homework, they would have done that there is a history of travel governments very intelligently, I would say, seeing an opening with companies that want to come and position things that are unpopular elsewhere like nuclear waste dumps on their reservations, leading them on, and there's a history, I think of the Campo band charging some company or the company investing $10 million in the band and education and building infrastructure, and then the band decided, NO, this is not what we want. Our environmental impact reports show we don't want one of these dumps here after all. So I think if eagle rock had done its research, it would know this is not an easy way to find their facility
MOSS: And I would say it doesn't look like eagle rock did its research. One of the big elements here is the bureau of Indian affairs, and the counter argument is that the bureau of Indian affairs, are the federal government holds all of these lands in trust, and the bureau is supposed to review these leases to make sure fair land value is paid for, making sure the tribes aren't getting bamboozeled. And they didn't approve. This it doesn't look like the general council even approved it, 'cause there's no stamp on the document. Just this one chair woman's signature
CAVANAUGH: Jeff MacDonald, it seems like this scenario played out just a few years ago, when the private military training facility backed by blackwater wanted to move into that area in the east county with promises of jobs, etc, etc.
MACDONALD: Jobs, money, business. I think that's what the upon applicant, blackwater was relying on when they put their application for. I think what they weren't relying on or expecting was the result from the community which said, wait a minute, we don't like blackwater and what they stand for. We don't want all these heavy equipment operations in our backyard. We like our privacy, we don't like the invasion of heavy equipment, planes, training, things like that.
CAVANAUGH: One of eagle rock's counter arguments is that they've already given the band of ibbians an awful -- a considerable sum of money, and invested a considerable sum of money in this training facility.
MOSS: Well, they say they've invested a total -- a little more than $300,000. I think it's arguable whether the tribe has gotten a lot out of it. The first six month system 25 grand, which in the grand scheme of things, that's a minor grant from the county Board of Supervisors. All they seem to have gotten is 25 grand a promise of a playground, a building, and eagle rock says, well, we gave your teenagers some iPods for Christmas. And we introduced one of your tribal members to the discovery channel. And that might lead to a job. And I think they employ maybe 12 people? So it doesn't seem like the greatest deal to me.
CAVANAUGH: I want to had the our listeners know that we are happy to take you into our conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Dave, there is a fire associated with this. And I think it has to do with one of those very few people that were ployed by eagle rock on the reservation
MOSS: There was a period in June, July, where they were issued a notice to vacate. And in between the period where that motion -- that notice to vacate came up, and they were supposed to be evicted, and this two-week extension is when alleged arson occurred. And they've arrested two young members of the tribe, I believe. I know one's a member. I'm not sure on the other one. I don't think that information has been put out there yet. But one was a member of the -- was working for this facility and apparently doused gasoline on the guard shack and set it on fire, which complicates this matter. The tribe says it's off the an individual criminal act. Eagle rock training center is saying, no, this was caused by the environment that you set up by creating this stand-off situation and saying basically the tribe riled up people to go and take things into their own hands
CAVANAUGH: You describe this as a standoff situation. What is the situation right now?
MOSS: Right. Well, nobody's really talking that much. I was able to speak to the tribe's attorney a little bit. ERTC says there's an agreement in place. The tribe says, NO, there's not. We know that you guys had a prior government training contract that started I believe on the 21st, so we'll let you go ahead and do that, but we're back to negotiating or the standoff as soon as that's over.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering too about the -- we've been talking just in case anybody's not clear, the fire we're referring to is the eagle rock fire that people heard so much about. Was it earlier this month?
MOSS: NO, it was a few months back. Back in July
CAVANAUGH: So is anybody going to be fined or prosecuted for that?
MOSS: I haven't been following the criminal side of it. I think it was something like $15 million worth of damage, is the number I remember seeing. And it was like 14,000 acres burnt up. I don't think it's gotten that far in the case. I know that there's two young men who are facing criminal charges and presumably the cal fire is inspecting it further and they're going to figure out how to tote the bill.
ST. JOHN: And speaking of the sort of legal intricacies of this whole thing, does eagle rock have a chance to appeal to a federal court? Or does the bureau of Indian affairs? Who has ultimate jurisdiction on this kind of a case?
MOSS: That's a good question. They are claiming it's federal court because this chair woman had signed this immunity waiver. Most tribal law experts said, well, a chair woman can't just sign away an immunity. You generally need tribe to tribe a general council or full council vote. So that's up in the air. Now, experts I talked to said this is probably going to have to go to one of the interagency tribal councils, and go to a tribal court to figure out whether she had the authority to do this, and usually federal courts don't like to get involved in tribal matters. It's not really their business in general. The immunity waiver aside, I can't really see a federal judge really wanting to go there.
CAVANAUGH: I want to get in one quick question if I may. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Martin is calling from City Heights. Good afternoon, Martin. Welcome to the show.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much. I was part of the activist San Diego.org as well as the top blackwater committee that worked with people. And my wife and I became very familiar with the way in which some of the giant war contractors are able to swing a whole lot of money and a whole lot of promises to communities to very well alter the communities. And from our experience, there was a lot of backdoor dealing up there by blackwater in Portrero, and it seems to very well be the case in the los coyotes Indian reservation. Probably the poorest Indian reservation in the State of California subject to all kinds of pressure and inside money dealings
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. And yet, they do have somebody's signature on the line of a contract
MOSS: They do indeed. They have a tribal chair person. It just says -- tribal spokes person, I think, on one of the contracts. There's two and then some lease addendums?
ST. JOHN: And you reported there was supposed to be a stamp
MOSS: There's a space at the bottom that says tribal council stamp, and it's just blank. So mayby she didn't need it, but somebody who wrote up the contract thought that she might
CAVANAUGH: We'll be waiting for the next chapter. Thank you very much, Dave
MOSS: No problem. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests are Allison Saint John, senior metro reporter, KPBS news. Jeff MacDonald watch dog reporter, San Diego Union Tribune. And Dave moss is reporter with San Diego City beat. You are invited to join this conversation. Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. We're switching up topics now is and going to Allison. Prison realignment is not just an idea anymore! It's a new law in California. It begins this weekend within the next few months San Diego County will be responsible for jailing and monitoring 400 more prisoners who would formally have been in state custody. This wreak, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan to taupe with the new prison reality. Tell us what's going to with on side.
ST. JOHN: Well, Saturday is just the first day, the beginning of October is when it all kicks in. I must say when I first heard the word realignment in January, I didn't even know what it meant. Here we are in October, and it's happening upon. So what's happening in this first weekend, about 260 prisoners who have left state prison will be returning to San Diego, and they will become the responsibility of San Diego's probation office. It's basically an an increase in responsibility for San Diego probation officers.
CAVANAUGH: And what kinds of inmates in the future, not the parolees, but under this realignment plan, what kind of inmates are going to stay in San Diego rather than going to state prison the way they normally would.
ST. JOHN: That's a very important point to clarify, Maureen. It's the nonviolent, nonsexual offenders. So we're talking about the ones who shouldn't be as much of a high risk as others. And therefore the argument is that you can perhaps be more flexible about the sentencing that you give them. They don't necessarily have to serve a sentence behind bars. And I think that's what the controversial issue coming up with this whole big shift
CAVANAUGH: I think one of the most -- one of the very interesting points you make in your story about this, Allison, is that you say the county Board of Supervisors as indeed much of the public may be dazed at how quickly this plan is actually happening. As you way, we first heard about this in January, right? And now it's the law of the state, and it's being implemented.
ST. JOHN: The county's had, like five months to come up with a plan. And many of the 58 counties around California have not come up with a plan. And not only that, apparently more than 30 of them, their jail system already overcrowded and they really don't have a place to put all of these new prisoners that are coming down. At least San Diego County has developed a plan. The issue is, how well is this plan going to work? But they to say that they do have room for 800 more prisoners in the county jail. 2,000 prisoners are going to be coming over the next few months from state prisons looking for neither a place in a county jail or this idea. Alternative sentencing, which as a citizen of San Diego, I think that is really the thing to be paying attention to. Of how well is the county going to be set up to deal with people serving out their sentences in the community? Alternative sentencing. Because this simply isn't room in the jails.
CAVANAUGH: Could you give us a background on this? Why is the State of California doing this?
ST. JOHN: Because the state prisons are horribly overcrowded. Almost 200% overcrowded. And the Supreme Court has issued an order saying you have to reduce the number of people in the prisons. So there's that. The fact that it's overcrowded, and of course the other element we're all familiar with is the state budget. The state budget is in crisis. And it will in fact, apparently, be cheaper to super vise and possibly incarcerate many of these lower, less serious offenders at the local level. The bright side of this is that the county supervisors say we can do this much more efficiently than the state. But we still need more money than we had before. And the question is, will the state provide that money? Now that is very much up in the air. The govern is saying of course, of course, I'm going to get you the the money. But the legislature has a history of having a short memory, and they may have forgotten they ever had that responsibility and decide to let the counties deal with it.
CAVANAUGH: 1-888-895-5727. Open our discussion up, this seems to me to be a radical change in direction for. For year, California has seemed to want to put more and more people into state prison for a longer and longer period of time. And now within a nine-month span, we get this really massive change of direction. And how are we supposed to accept that kind of a thing, Dave?
MOSS: I don't know. I kind of think of this in the same vein as retirement systems or vars other spending programs where for years and years people are spending at a deficit, while having a deficit. In this case, it was these tough-on-crime, fear based policy strategies that nobody was really thinking in the long-term how much this is going to cost us, what the -- when you push this to the extreme, what's gonna happen? And now we're just realizing well, it's not only unsustainable, it's well past that. It's not just a financial crisis. It's a human rights crisis. Now, all these policies that perhaps should have been talked about years and years ago, are being forced seven us by a court.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of legacy, Jeff, do you think this is of laws like three strikes, etc.? We have heard -- we hear that the crime rates are going down and have been down across the state, I think. But here we're left with -- you know, this massive prison overcrowding problem.
MACDONALD: I think that it will prompt a review of laws like that. I should hope so. Clearly we're in a situation where we can't take care of all the people we've incarcerated. Perhaps more importantly, it would prompt sentencing reform, which is something this governor know ace great deal about it, having supervised a major shift in sentencing when he was governor in the 1970s. I can tell you also that that's a great deal of concern over how the State Department of corrections and rehabilitation is measuring the threat of these people that are considered nonviolent. There have been case after case after case of prisoners who have been let go, released on something that the state came up with last year called nonrevokable parole where these people actually may present a very serious threat to the community and are being ununsuper rised under the state patrol system. So the question is, can the counties who are assuming this over sight responsibility for the nonviolent offenders, can they deliver the over sight that the public expects and trust the evaluations of the state folks who have said these are nonviolent offenders who don't have to worry about huge resources of monitoring when that's proved not to be the case time and time again over the last couple years?
CAVANAUGH: I know a lot of victims' rights groups are voicing the same concerns. And has the county heard those voices?
ST. JOHN: Yes. I mean, I think the county -- all of the supervisors made it very clear that they thought this was a rash decision on the part of the state, and not a good situation at all, and a very risky one. And they were doing their best to make sure that the public safety is protected. But they've allocated $5 million to the probation department to hire extra probation officers. Is that going to be enough? We've got 2,000 people arriving over the next few months who will be now extra people for the Probation Department to be responsibly for. And people in the community are saying -- who already work with exoffenders are saying that the word on the street now is, hey, there's nemore room at the inn, maybe if we commit a crime without a weapon, we will only get this amount of time in our living rooms with an ankle bracelet on. It won't be that bad. Could this be something that's an incentive to start committing petty crime? It's an unknown how this is going to affect the criminal scene.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And you said with a certain deliberation, San Diego County supervisors announced their plan this week. What is the plan plan?
ST. JOHN: Well, the plan is really to put a lot more focus on alternative sentencing. So the person who is leading the charge as it were is Matt Jenkins who's the chief probation officer. Rather than the sheriff. They're taking the emphasis over more jails, more people in the jails, and putting the spotlight really on the Probation Department and saying we're going to have different sentencing, like Jeff was just mentioning. There's an idea of split sentencing where the judge would give somebody a two-year sentence, but only one year behind bars, and one year being monitored. There's a lot of different strategies that they're using. And interestingly enough, the county has already been using some of these strategies. Bonnie Dumanis, the District Attorney has implemented a program which is fairly successful in reducing recidivism among people who might otherwise have gone to jail. So they have some experience. And they're talking a lot about evident based practices that they've developed on cut down to recidivism, bearing in mind that 70% of the people in state prison are there because they have -- violated their parole. So that is a key issue. How can you develop strategies to keep people on the straight and narrow? Now, if I may just add, a lot of that has to do with support. And the supervisors were talking about partnering with community organizations that would have drug treatment or monitoring or programs to help people learn job skills. All of those kinds of things that are the positive side of keeping someone out of jail. But the question remains, is there the money to do that?
MACDONALD: Those do tend to get defunded soonest when politicians are looking at budget shortfalls
ST. JOHN: Health and human services said they're giving us $3 million extra to deal with this influx, but I asked, is that going to make up for all the cuts you've had over the years from the state? And he had to admit, NO, it won't. What that means is drug treatment, for example, which the county is responsible for, there may be longer waiting times now for people to get into drug treatment because there's this additional population. People who are looking for it.
CAVANAUGH: And what a time to have people, more people on parole on the streets of San Diego with the unemployment rate that we have. What are these parolees supposed to be doing with themselves once they get out of prison, out of county jail? Where can you did G to find a job these days especially if you have a prison record?
ST. JOHN: Bingo.
MOSS: Historically, they have gone to ship buildings, and in facto employees like that. High piing, middle class jobs that don't require college education. But a parole agent told me last year when I was researching a lot about this for another story, those jobs are drying up because they're getting fewer ship construction contracts
CAVANAUGH: That's -- yeah, and one of the scariest things I think you said, Allison, it's not really about San Diego County. But how unprepared so many counties in California are. What are they predicting in Los Angeles?
ST. JOHN: Has is in a state of, I would say, unpreparedness at the moment. Not only that, the two main leaders of this transition, their sheriff and chief probation officer are both right now under calls from people from critics for them to resign because they say the Probation Department is in shambles. Of there's rumors Donald Blavins may lose his job any minute. The ACLU has just issued a report with a letter asking for federal investigation of LA County jails because they say that Lee backa, are the sheriff has completely denied and ignored criticisms for years. The place is full of civil rights violations, overcrowded, and the sheriff is in denial and says this is all because prisoners lie. He won't deal with the problem. So really, I think what's interesting that our supervisor Ron Roberts mentioned during the meeting that San Diego isn't an island. We're not just -- we don't just deal with prisoners in our own community. If there are prisoners in LA not being dealt with, that could affect us. I know living and working in North County, Oceanside, a lot of the crime up there is connected to criminal activity in LA. So this could affect us, the fact that LA appears to be far les prepared than San Diego County.
CAVANAUGH: And yet at the same time, does this perhaps show us if there is an influx of people who are coming to San Diego County and serving out the rest of their sentences on parole
Rather than in state custody and not going to state prisons that a whole bunch of people shouldn't have been in state prison to begin with?
MOSS: Probably, one thing I like to think looking for the silver lining in this, you would have to look at how many families are going to be reunified. Because there is a big problem with people, especially in poorer communities where there's broken families because people are serving extremely long sentences. And I hope that that might be something positive that comes out of that. A lot more fathers with their children again. Or mothers with their children again. Something that I try to have some hope on
CAVANAUGH: Certainly. I'll never forget the call we had from one of our state representative, Joel Anderson, when this was first proposed, I remember his comment on this program, he said, yeah, what we have to do is lock the doors and buy a dog am so he was not optimistic at that time. But it sounds as if, at least in the beginning of this, that San Diego has stepped up to the plate and and is going to try to make a go of this thing.
ST. JOHN: Yes. I think basically San Diego may be one of the counties who's better prepared. And ironically, politically speaking, Maureen, a lot of people criticized the law enforcement community for being like an old boys' network of the sheriff and the DA all linked and it's impossible to penetrate that wall of some people say collusion. But here, conversely, I think it has shown that the county is able to cooperate. And other counties where the sheriff and probation officer don't even speak to each other, that is turning out to be a benefit
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much Allison.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests are Allison Saint John, senior metro reporter with KPBS news, Jeff MacDonald, watch dog reporter with the San Diego Union Tribune, and Dave moss, reporter with San Diego City beat. You're invited to join this conversation. 1-888-895-5727. Jeff, this has been a difficult month for San Diego gas and electric. They've gotten a number of pointed questions about why a transmission line failure in Arizona caused all of San Diego's power to go out back on September 8th, and now this week, the state public utilities commission grounded all of SDG&E's helicopter operations in the construction of the sunrise power link. Tell us about the incidents that made the PUC issue that stop work order.
MACDONALD: Well, the order itself cites eight separate incidents since February. The most serious of which appear to be two rotor strikes with the helicopters that they're using to construct the power lines. The First, 1 happened in February where the rotor in the back of the helicopter either in landing or takeoff, it struck a bolder during the construction. They use a lot of helicopters to build this power line. It's a major thousand megawatt line, covering 120 some miles. So the overhead portion of the line, 75% of it is being done with helicopters as opposed to trucks
CAVANAUGH: Why is that?
MACDONALD: Because of the remoteness of the area. They also thought the impact to the community would be easier, are the access would be better. A number of reasons am at any rate, any time you embark on a major capital construction project, there are going to be some accidents as you would expect. However, in its heard from this week, they cited two accidents, including two tail strikes. It happened in August where another helicopter tail struck a fence post. And again, no one was hurt in any of these. Three times since August, there have been rig failures where equipment was dropped. In June you might remember that a helicopter dropped a eight-ton steel lattice tower that they were moving into place as part of the cop instruction. And it plunged 200 feet near the highway. And then three days later, there was another equipment failure where out of four prongs, about three of them failed, and they were able to lower that portion of the tower don't safely to the desert floor. At any rate, there have been some disappointments, I think about regulators that the utility hasn't fully reported some of these incidents. And it culminated this week with a stop work order
CAVANAUGH: Now, back in June, you wrote an article about this, about the incidents that you just told us about. And what was the PUC's reaction then?
MACDONALD: Well, at that point, the first lattice tower drop occurred June 7th, I believe. The utility did report it to the FAA. Upon the helicopter was immediately grounded. It was inspected, it passed muster with the federal regulators. But apparently the PUC wasn't informed of it. They cited extremely deficient communication on the part of the utility at that time. There wasn't any penalty exposed, at least that we're aware of. The utility put the helicopter back into service three days later, and on the first day, within hours, there was that second accident, I believe, June 10th where three of the four prongs gave way for unknown reasons, they lowered it down safely, and proceeded with the work. Those incidents combined with the February tail rotor strike, the February tail rotor strike, and three rig failures just in the past 12-day, I think. Upon in the past couple of weeks led up to the PUC action on Tuesday, I think it was
CAVANAUGH: Since the PUC has actually ordered the grounding of these helicopters, what else are they ordering SDGand U to do? Something about retraining of some kind?
MACDONALD: Yes, they basically told the utility to redouble their efforts at safety training, at communications, going over the reporting requirements once again. The utility, when we find out about the tail rotor strikes, I asked the utility about it more than a week ago. We knew about this 3 or 4 days before we published it, and we were trying to nail down the facts. The utility at first told us, they had reported the incidents to the senior PUC. The next day they changed their story and said we didn't report it, but it wasn't required to be reported. Now we're in negotiations with the PUC about what specifically does need to be reported. The regulators were a little more clear to me in discussing the incidents and said there's no question they needed to be reported, and there was no question they were not reported to the state regulators. So I think that -- we reported that over the weekend, Saturday, after we were able to nail down some facts, and I don't know that our reporting had any impact on the utility's -- excuse me, the regulators' decision to issue the stop work order. But that publicity combined with the state of reg failures earlier this month probably contributed to the decision.
CAVANAUGH: I want to open up the conversation. Allison in
ST. JOHN: Well, just the -- I saw the pictures of the helicopter, and I remembered the last time we saw that helicopter was when SDG&E was touting it as being an addition to San Diego's fire response team. The company was saying here, we've got this wonderful helicopter that will add to the security of the region because it will respond if there's a fire. And it just seems kind of surprising that the company would take the risk generating bad press for itself by not revealing the problems with the operations of this helicopter.
MACDONALD: Well, I don't know what to say about that. I think that their position is they've gotten permission to do the work, they're employing a lot of people, they're producing a product that's going to serve, you know, the entire San Diego metro region, and they need to get it done. Now, according to the utility, they've complied with all safety rules. Safety is their number one priority. I'm sure they would say that. It's not just one helicopter they're using. They use up to 21 different helicopters at any given time. I don't want to say it's a 24/7 operation, but they're building at an extremely accelerated pace probably because they're in litigation
CAVANAUGH: I was going to say. There are still lawsuits and pending. So could it be part of the problem that this work is speeded up to such an extent so that it's basically impossible to rule against the sunrise power link because it's up?
MACDONALD: Well, certainly the people litigating the case against the power line suspect that. There may be perfectly legitimate business reasons for it proceeding quickly, economical as well as environmental with the eagle nesting season up coming. They might want to get more of their work done ahead of that than as much as they can. It remains to be seen what impact the stop-work order will have. They have to constitute a bunch of new training. Of the PUC told me just today that it would be days, maybe weeks, certainly not months. And the utility is proceeding on as much of their construction schedule as it can without using the helicopters. So it's not that work on the power link has been suspended completely
CAVANAUGH: I just want to let everyone know our number is 1-888-895-5727. Allison?
ST. JOHN: Well, I just wonder, Jeff, has there been some change in the PUC or in the laws or the way that those laws are being implemented that might have tripped SDG&E up? You said one day we told them and the next day they haven't.
MACDONALD: Well, certainly the utility commission has changed its makeup since the new governor took office. And the stop work order brings a lot of people's jobs into halt, it bring it is the regulators into question. I'm sure they don't do it lightly. Some of the opponents of the project might say that the PUC is finally enforcing its own laws and they've allowed the utility to proceed with the construction despite these -- I think they're up to almost three-dozen incidences of reporting, incidences they were required to report, noncompliance findings, things like that. Memorand they're required to file. It's not these eight instances cited in the stop work order are the only cases. There have been fires reported, there was a diesel spill, there were some account accidents, there were violations of nesting areas. There was a no-fly violation earlier this year where the helicopter three times in one day flew into a restricted zone because it was restricted for golden eagle nesting areas. In every case, the utility has responded that, you know, they've done their reporting, they've complied with the rules, they've taken steps to make sure it doesn't happen again, and they're proceeding at a pace.
ST. JOHN: But is the PUC -- has there been any changes at the PUC that might have caused this?
MACDONALD: Governor Brown appointed four new people this year. So yes, there's been a big change. You'd like to think maybe they're enforcing some of the laws more diligently than their predecessors. This power line was approved by the PUC after a split vote, after a lot of negotiations, much of which were private. So yes, the people in litigation with the SDGand U utility over this issue, they like to think that the change in makeup at the PUC is definitely responsible for the stop-work order.
MOSS: So it always seems to me this is not so much for the residents out there. It's not so much a not in my backyard sort of thing, but not in my house, or not over my liven stock, especially if you're going to be dropping stock. People have reported helicopters are flying over their houses, have you heard anything on that front?
MACDONALD: A lot on that front. It's difficult to nail down because there's not any proof beyond someone's allegation or report. I did acquire photos from a bottom woman who complained that the helicopters were flying over their property. The FAA has told me that the rules are you have to stay 500 feet at least, you can't fly over populated areas. That said, you're also allowed to fly in the course of where you're building. There are definitely flyways that you're allowed to follow. The utility says that they haven't violated those, they're very cognizant of where people live, they work with the community as much as they can to assure that the flyovers are as little disruptive as believe po. On the other hand, you hear from some of the people on the ground, and these are generally rural communities, so it's not like suburbia or dense populations, where the helicopters -- one ladylikened it to living in a war zone. And you feel bad for these people. Of the construction needs to get done. The helicopter vs to do their work if the construction is going to proceed. On the other hand, it would be very bothersome to have helicopters flying over all day and into the evening.
CAVANAUGH: Jeff, as part of your reporting on this, you sometimes publish verbatim the responses that you get from SDG&E. How difficult is it to get timely accurate information about some of these alleged incidents?
MACDONALD: Oh, from the utility in particular? Well, they take their due diligence in responding. But I don't begrudge them that a bit. They need to be careful when they say, and I would frankly dot same thing in their position. They need to satisfy a lot of different populations. They need to satisfy the regulators, the media, the elected officials, the residents. So all of the statements that they issue in response to various allegations, they have to meet responsibility for a lot of different interest groups. So I don't begrudge them. It does take several hours though. The day it took them probably four hours to get a statement. I think maybe three photographs
CAVANAUGH: Aren't reporting requirements part of what they're being ordered to do through the PUC in this stop-work order?
MACDONALD: They already have reporting requirements. What the order says is that they need to redouble their efforts at adhering to the reporting requirements. This reporting would be on the regulators monitoring the construction.
CAVANAUGH: Not to you. I was talking to you, but just in general, getting the information out and being more transparent
MOSS: I've never gotten a response from SDGand U in four hours. But we only come out once a week.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you in closing, Jeff, what happens now? When are these helicopters getting back up in the air?
MACDONALD: Well, I can't say for certain. The utility said they already reinstituted retraining, and they plan to communicate all the permit conditions to their fliers, their contractors, everybody doing the work. The regulators told me that it probably will be days, maybe weeks. So it'll be a short number of probably, you know, next month and mid-October, I'd say at probably the latest
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you all. My guests have been Allison Saint John and Dave moss and Jeff MacDonald. Thank you so much for speaking with us on the Roundtable today.
ST. JOHN: Pleasure
MACDONALD: Thank you for having us
MOSS: Thank you.