FAA, Delta County, company sort out why power lines built near airport
DELTA — High-power overhead transmission lines appear to have been erected near Blake Field Airport north of Delta with little knowledge of federal aviation officials.
The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing the project and could recommend strict safety measures if the poles aren’t removed or rerouted.
The 12.9-mile, $21 million project was completed in November and includes two new electric substations, according to Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. The lines are linked to a transmission route between Montrose and Grand Junction.
The Delta County Commission granted Tri-State approval for the lines last year with stipulations that the company adhere to all federal and state regulations.
“The power company didn’t wait for the FAA to complete its aeronautical study. It wasn’t supposed to happen,” said Robert van Haastert, a supervisor with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The power lines are not in operation but will transmit 115 kilovolts when energized, according to Tri-State.
The transmission route runs one-half mile northwest of the Blake Field runway, according to airport manager Mark Husman. Ten of the poles have been put on a hill that rises 100 feet higher than the runway, and at 50 feet tall, the poles exceed the height limit set forth by the FAA.
The airport is three miles north of Delta.
Pilots began noticing the construction last fall and immediately voiced safety concerns to county officials.
“The main point of contention is that the line has been completed, the poles are up, and the line is up,” Delta County Attorney Brad Kolman said. “Tri-State said their guy made a mistake with the longitude and latitudes.”
That’s why the FAA is late to the game but not without influence in the final outcome.
A company wanting to build a structure near an airport must notify the FAA prior to its construction. The company can complete the Notice Criteria Tool on the FAA’s website, which helps an applicant determine whether notice to the FAA is warranted.
“Following concerns expressed by the Delta County and Blake Field Airport, Tri-State re-evaluated the location data entered into the Notice Criteria Tool last July and determined, after consulting with the FAA, that the latitude and longitude information for the transmission line project was improperly converted before being entered into the online tool,” Tri-State spokeswoman Sarah Carlisle said in a written statement.
She said Tri-State acted swiftly when the problem was identified and that it has worked diligently with the FAA to get a determination and resolve the issue in a timely manner.
Tri-State’s completion of the project has forced the FAA to be reactionary, van Haastert said. And whatever it determines should be done will need to be enforced by Delta County, not the federal agency.
Van Haastert said the FAA normally conducts studies to determine whether construction projects affect established approach patterns or impede visual flight rules, or VFR, for takeoffs and landings.
Because Blake Field has no approach patterns, and only noncommercial, general-aviation aircraft use the airfield, the FAA is conducting a VFR study to gauge whether the power lines affect aircraft flying low or in bad weather.
Visual flight rules are sets of regulations that allow a pilot to operate aircraft in clear weather without the use of instruments.
“Obviously, the hill itself is a concern. On one side they’re even closer to the airport. On the other side of the hill they’re building into a wilderness area,” Kolman said. “Certainly any alteration would be very expensive.”
Kolman said Delta County isn’t drawing any conclusions regarding potential legal action against Tri-State and the county and Tri-State area awaiting findings from the FAA on Feb. 8.
“Personally, I think (the power lines) should be taken down,” Husman said.
Tri-State declined to discuss a cost estimate if it has to reroute part of the transmission line, saying such speculation is premature. Instead, Carlisle said, “These issues will be carefully evaluated following completion of the FAA’s study that is presently under way.”
Van Haastert said the FAA could advise Tri-State to install red warning lights on top of the poles and lighted signal balls on the wires themselves.
“The safety lights and balls are just a Band-Aid,” Husman said.
In addition, van Haastert said the FAA could require the minimum-altitude standards to be increased in order for pilots to remain at a safe distances from the power lines.
“(The new standards) could make the instrument-approach procedures useless,” van Haastert said. “It could wreak havoc for planes operating in clouds at 400 feet, making landings inoperative. … Bad weather sometimes forces these guys to lower altitudes, bringing more danger to the pilots from these power lines.”
Van Haastert said the FAA has encountered similar situations, most recently at an airport in Pueblo, where an area of overhead power lines was completed before the FAA became aware of it.
Van Haastert said if the power lines near Blake Field remain in place, FAA navigational charts would have to be amended with their locations.
Blake Field is one of two municipal airports in Delta County.