As the primary means of transporting workers to and from the province’s offshore installations, helicopters were central to discussions on worker safety at the latest meeting of the Hebron Public Review Commission.
The public meeting, held Wednesday at the Holiday Inn in St. John’s, is part of three weeks of consultations aimed at providing information relevant to a review of the developing Hebron offshore oil project.
In a presentation to the commission, the NDP MHA for St. John’s North, Dale Kirby, said the continued use of Sikorsky S-92 helicopters for servicing the offshore is “reckless.”
“The continuing use of this helicopter in our offshore industry is troubling. More than troubling, I would call it reckless,” Kirby told the commission.
He went on to say — both in his written submission and on a radio call-in show later in the day — he feels the continued use of the S-92 is also “dangerous.”
The Sikorsky-built S-92 is the same model as the helicopter that crashed off Newfoundland and Labrador in March 2009, during a flight to an offshore oil platform. Titanium studs securing the aircraft’s filter bowl assembly to its main gearbox broke, causing oil to leak from the gearbox. Eleven minutes after the loss of oil, the helicopter crashed into the North Atlantic, resulting in 17 deaths.
The crash after 11 minutes with no oil resulted in a call for Newfoundland and Labrador to have helicopters with the ability to fly up to 30 minutes without oil — the so-called “30-minute run-dry” capability.
On Wednesday, Kirby accused the federal government of maintaining a “deafening silence” on both the issue of certification of the S-92 and the question of the type of aircraft that should be used for workers moving to and from the offshore. He said the issues would be raised provincially in the House of Assembly, if the House was open.
While the MHA said “the S-92 should be immediately replaced,” regulators have yet to express the same feeling.
In July, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rejected a call by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board to bring in a requirement for S-92 gearboxes to have a 30-minute run-dry capability.
Local operator Cougar Helicopters continues to use S-92s with a less than 30-minute run-dry capability for moving workers to and from the province’s offshore oil installations.
“It was surprising, to some extent,” said Hebron review commissioner Miller Ayre, addressing the topic of the 30-minute run-dry capability. “At present, they haven’t seemed to move very fast to change, or have stated they can’t change, the existing (helicopters).”
Cougar was not represented among the speakers at the public review meeting. The company was contacted by The Telegram for response to the comments on the S-92s.
In an email, a company spokeswoman replied Cougar “will not be responding to comments made at a public commission.”
However, Cougar has previously stated it is confident in its use of the S-92, considering improvements made to the helicopter model since the March 2009 crash — including changing the titanium studs on the aircraft’s filter bowl to steel studs and upgrading the oil lubrication system.
As for the helicopter’s manufacturer, Sikorsky, spokesman Paul Jackson stated on Nov. 25 the company has “complete confidence” in the current state of the S-92 model.
A representative for offshore workers, CEP local 2121 president Brian Murphy, said he would like to see aircraft brought in to augment the existing helicopter fleet servicing the offshore, as Hebron gets up and running. Those additional helicopters, he said, should have a 30-minute run-dry capability.
“There is no logical reason why workers in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore should have less than the best available safety capacity in the helicopters in which they must ride to work,” Murphy said.
A helicopter service contract has not yet been awarded for the Hebron platform. It is expected helicopters will not be needed for the project until about 2016.
Project manager Geoff Parker told Ayre a call for proposals on helicopter services will likely be made next year.
The proposals will be expected to meet specific Hebron project standards. Those standards, Parker said, have yet to be finalized. However, the company has the option to include a 30-minute run-dry capability as a requirement for helicopters servicing the Hebron site.
Whether or not that is practical, considering available helicopter service providers and available helicopters with 30-minute run-dry capability, remains in question.
Discussions on Hebron’s safety plans continue in presentations today at the next Hebron Public Review Commission meeting.