Photo by Shelby Talyor
HIGH-WIRE ACT: Rep. Gina McCabe, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Goldendale Mayor Mike Cannon, and Klickitat County Commissioner David Sauter listen in Monday’s meeting with the FAA and BPA.
At a meeting Monday in White Salmon, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler bluntly told the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) it should immediately get safety marker balls placed on its new transmission lines across the Columbia River.
The BPA completed multiple transmission lines last year near Wishram as part of its Big Eddy Knight Project. The lines have resulted in a safety hazard to aircraft due to its lack of visibility balls, with special concern on two thin ground wires above the main transmission lines.
Monday’s meeting culminated months of conversation between the BPA and local authorities over the safety issue. Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer spearheaded the discussions and helped pull together the meeting. Attending were Songer, Herrera Beutler, Rep. Gina McCabe, Klickitat County Commissioner David Sauter, aviation expert Doug Herlihy, FAA Western U.S. Operations Supervisor Robert van Haastert, BPA Vice President of Engineering and Technical Services Mike Miller, and representatives from BPA and Gorge municipalities and counties.
The Columbia River route is well-known navigable airspace with various air traffic, consisting of military aircraft, training programs, fire tankers, and civil aircraft. The lack of ball markings along the suspended wires result in nearly invisible flight hazards for pilots. Instead, towers on the north and south sides of the river are lighted by three periodically blinking lights. Herlihy noted that these blinking lights easily merge with the routinely flashing background lights of the wind turbines.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) claimed that their initial information on the maximum height of the wires was that they were just 222 feet above ground, 551 feet above mean sea level (msl). As a result, the FAA determined that simply lighting the towers on either side would be sufficient. But that figure did not take into account the elevation of the towers above the water.
According to Herlihy, the FAA Seattle Sectional Chart has determined that the north tower of the span is not 551 feet msl, but 1,043 feet msl, and that the south tower is measured at 1,257 feet msl. Songer added, “At this elevation, an aircraft flying at 120 knots would have 2.25 seconds to see and avoid these wires,” resulting in the aircraft literally being split in half.
Van Haastert stated that, “The federal regulations require that any lines above 200 feet need marker balls.” With the new measurements of the height of the wires taken into account, it was concluded that BPA must take down the current transmission lines, place the proper ball lighting along the wires, and restring the wire.
Herlihy went on to elaborate the need for urgency by stating that the number one cause of fatal aircraft accidents are the result of wire strikes. Rolf Anderson, airport manager of Columbia Gorge Regional Airport in Dallesport, detailed a recent incident near Deschutes when fire tankers were scooping water from the Columbia River to assist with a nearby fire. The fire tankers were not able to see the unmarked wires at dusk, and more importantly, in heavy smoke. During fire season, this poses an immediate concern. Anderson stated that the need to properly mark the wires is at emergency status.
BPA maintained that placing the marker balls might negatively impact the scenic views of the Gorge and repeatedly stated there were broader concerns, though they did not elaborate.
Herrera Beutler expressed her concern for a lack of timeline presented by the BPA to address the unfaltering issues. “I am very encouraged the FAA and Bonneville Power came to the table to address the concerns,” she said.
“These aren’t just local citizens. This impacts anybody who’s coming through this area and with fire season and the need for helicopters to get water, for training programs, or for the military to go through here. It is critical that this gets addressed soon, and I feel like they are both now completely aware of the need and the urgency of the situation, and we are going to stay in contact with them to make sure that the timeline is followed. ‘Yes, we’re going to fix it’ is good. Now it’s a question of getting it done. We are over the hard part; now we are into the implementation phase.”