Tuesday, September 30, 2008
City responds to Grand Jury report on Blythe Airport
The Blythe City Council approved a response to a Grand Jury report critical of warning systems in place at the Blythe Airport. Assistant City Manager Charles, “Butch” Hull, who oversees management of the airport, told Grand Jury Foreman, John B. Todd, that the city was “caught virtually in the middle of a regulatory quagmire of State and Federal regulations that frankly, don’t mesh well.”
Hull was referring to conflicting orders received by city officials from two federal agencies, the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
“In January 2001 the California Energy Commission (CEC) permitted a 520 MW natural gas fired power plant, Blythe Energy (BEP) one mile east of the approach end of the east/west runway 26,” Hull wrote. “It was subsequently authorized to commence commercial operations on Dec. 29, 2003.”
Hull said that shortly after the plant opened, Pat Wolfe, who is a sub-lessee and the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) at the airport, joined others who complained of rising thermal plumes from the facility, claiming they were a hazard to pilots and aircraft approaching the airport.
“The CEC required BEP to mitigate the circumstance with a device that would automatically warn in-coming pilots, via a radio on the airport Unicom frequency, not to overfly the power plant while approaching the runway,” Hull wrote. “BEP funded the SuperAWOS (SA) which the city installed at the airport and placed into operation on Oct. 24, 2006.”
Hull said that on March 16, 2007 the city shut the SA off in compliance with a directive received from the FCC but that the CEC immediately demanded the unit be turned back on to protect arriving pilots.
He said that a letter was received from the FCC that offered two options; make available to Wolfe the means to make the automated announcement from his equipment or obtain a city-owned, modified license to operate the SA when the FBO is closed.
“Mr. Wolfe has (several times) indicated his unwillingness to cooperate with any type of agreement to announce the power plant location and to advise pilots not to fly over it,” Hull wrote in the staff report presented to the Council.
In a letter to Hull, Wolfe said that he wanted to be compensated at a rate of $6,301 a month from the day in which the Instrument Landing System (ILS) was ordered turned off by the FAA until it can be turned back on and BEP makes a reasonable offer to use his radio license.
“Then I would be agreeable to broadcast a warning to pilots about the power plant being there,” Wolfe wrote in his letter.
Hull said that the ILS, which allows pilots to approach the airport for landing using only the plane’s instruments, was decommissioned by the FAA since its alignment conflicts with BEP.
In a second letter, Wolfe said that there was a “two-part settlement in the case.”
“One is the cost of damage to the airport caused by FP&L Power Plant,” he wrote. “The second part is what is it worth to FP&L to transmit a warning to pilots about the danger of flying over their power plant?”
Hull said that the Grand Jury report is a restatement of the obvious without any recognition for the regulatory quagmire that does not give one jurisdiction authority over another when it comes to this type of situation.
“Mr. Wolfe wants compensation for his fiscal impacts produced by BEP,” he wrote. “…he is adamant BEP owes him for the release of the existing Unicom license, so it can be acquired by the City finally turning the SA back on to announce to pilots the BEP is one mile east. Since the City is not the permitting agency for BEP and cannot force BEP to pay Mr. Wolfe for this mitigation, staff will forward all of the above to the CEC for their resolution with BEP. In the meantime, the SA will remain off.”
In response to the Grand Jury’s first recommendation that the city take immediate action to implement the mitigation measures that were directed by the CEC and funded by FPL, “specifically, vigorously pursue an agreement with Wolfe Enterprises to purchase and/or transfer Wolfe Enterprise’s FCC license (frequency 122.8 Mhz) to the City of Blythe for operation of the SuperAWOS Unicom,” city officials said they had ordered and installed the SuperAWOS (SA) unit as directed by the CEC and funded by Blythe Energy.
“That unit was operational on Oct. 17, 2006 on the Blythe Airport Unicom frequency of 122.8, as mandated by the California Energy Commission (CEC),” the response reads. “It contained the out-going message to arriving pilots, ‘Power plant located one mile east of the Blythe Airport. Avoid low altitude, direct over-flight, due to potential thermal plumes.’ When this equipment was ordered from Potomac Aviation Technology Corporation, the quotation for this equipment specifically stated: “Frequency allocation – None Required. City staff asked specifically about this item and was assured that there would be no issues related to the use of this equipment on an active Unicom frequency, as was the case nationwide.”
The report states that, subsequently, Wolfe filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) claiming the SA caused interference on the Unicom frequency he currently holds the license to, call sign WQDX395. The city complied with the FCC order dated March 9, 2007 to shut the SA off which essentially took the CEC mandated announcement to avoid the power plant east of the airport off the air to arriving pilots.
A letter from the FCC on Jan. 25, 2008, directed Wolfe to inform them within 15 days of the date of the letter, whether Station WQDX395 currently advises aircraft of the power plant issue during the station’s operating hours.”
“Mr. Wolfe has not complied with that directive and as of Sept. 16, 2008, has again refused to comply fearing personal liability should an aviation accident occur on or near the Blythe Airport,” the response reads.
The FCC letter stated the city could seek its own license to operate an automated Unicom at the airport during hours when Station WQDX395 is not operating but city officials told the Grand Jury that a waiver would most assuredly be protested by Mr. Wolfe.
“It should be noted that the City has previously discussed on three different occasions with Mr. Wolfe, alternatives to this dilemma,” the response states. “Any release of the title to the Unicom license to the city or to modify the existing Unicom license to co-locate two transmitters on the same frequency is clearly not an option for him without proper compensation from BEP1. This issue boils down to Blythe Energy paying for the impacts (real or perceived) to Mr. Wolfe’s Fixed Base Operation (FBO) at the Blythe Airport. To ‘Vigorously pursue an agreement with Wolfe Enterprises…’ without an ability to speak to the cash settlement required for Mr. Wolfe is not a position the city can accommodate. The city will transmit this most recent correspondence from Mr. Wolfe to the CEC and Blythe Energy for resolution. Once there is an ability to obtain the existing Unicom license in the City of Blythe’s name, the City will do exactly that. Finally, once the proper license is obtained for the SA equipment, the announcement required by the CEC will be broadcast both by the FBO and automatically by the SuperAWOS equipment when the FBO is closed.
City officials concurred with a second recommendation that they reactivate the SuperAWOS that has been purchased by BEP1 that will notify pilots to avoid direct over flight of the power plant.
In response to a recommendation that the city conduct an environmental review that has been funded by the BEP1, of the designation of a calm wind runway and/or a change in the traffic-landing pattern at the airport, city officials said they agreed in the CEC hearings concerning the Blythe Energy Power Plant No. 2, (BE II), that since the second plant would come closer to impeding safe left-hand traffic for runway 26, the City would recommend to the FAA to institute right-hand traffic for runway 26 when the construction for BE II started.
“The Grand Jury recommendation to advance the environmental review to change the calm wind runway designation and change the traffic pattern for runway 26 prior to BE II starting construction, will be presented to the CEC and BEP as a mitigation measure for their consideration and funding obligation,” the response reads. “An environmental review is not currently funded by BEP1.”
Editor’s Note: Blythe Airport with power plant shown one mile east. Note the stacks are lined up with runway 26. This location should never have been approved by either the California Energy Commission (CEC) nor the Blythe City Council. Further you need to check NOTAMS to find it as the Sectional Chart shows it slightly north of the final approach to runway 26.