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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Public Service

Messy Government Oversight

By Lee Benson

I consult for a variety of companies that collectively have an array of products. These products range from A (avionics) to W (wash systems). Sorry, I haven’t come up with X, Y or Z yet, but I’m working on it.

This diversity allows me to interact with many different facets of the helicopter community. Recently, I had the opportunity to be involved with ground support equipment that PHI (formerly Petroleum Helicopters, Inc.) had acquired from one of my customers to support Shell’s Arctic drilling project in Barrow, Alaska. We supplied the company with distillers to produce water for engine and airframe washes, application equipment to administer the water into the engine or on the airframe and a mat system to collect the generated water.

It is well understood that helicopter companies working in today’s aviation regulatory environment have more than sufficient issues to retain their attention. This project opened my eyes to another side of the regulatory conundrum, that being the different environmental oversight agencies that companies working in the oil patch must satisfy.

The story starts when the ground equipment companies scheduled their technicians to travel to Barrow and install the equipment. At this point, they were made aware of a requirement that each employee must attend a one-day cultural diversity class on working with the indigenous population. OK, I have flown and worked (not that the two are mutually exclusive) in Alaska with Alaskan natives. They are nice folks, and I made some good friends. What I want to know is how did I ever work in New York or New Jersey without similar training?

Upon arriving in Barrow, it was brought to our attention that absolutely no water from the Barrow water system could be used to wash the aircraft. So PHI was on the hook to fly in water from outside the area for what became known as the “bird bath.” The plan at this point was to supply our own water, run it through the distiller to bring the water up to the engine manufacturer’s specification for engine washes—yes, there is such a thing—and then wash the engine or airframe with the application equipment.

The water was then to be collected by the mat system so that no water, soap, oil or combustion byproducts touched the ground in Barrow. Once collected, the water was again run through the distiller, which separates the water for reuse. The byproduct of this distillation process was then put into sealed containers and flown out of Alaska to an appropriate hazardous material collection point. Whew!

All was well, until I got a call; it seems that one of the environmental watchdog groups had declared that if the fine mist of water thrown out of the engine exhaust stacks during the wash cycle was not collected, “environmental Armageddon” would occur. My company asked if I knew anyone at the respective airframe and engine manufacturers who might have had a solution to the causal factor of the aforementioned Armageddon.

Know that I had not indicated which friends at which companies I contacted. Deniability is a wonderful thing. Just ask one of our presidential hopefuls. After my friends finished laughing, it was determined that a solution for this did not exist. Fortunately, calmer heads decided that since environmental Armageddon would not occur within one election cycle, this requirement could be dropped.

So now our folks were enlightened culturally, the equipment was in place and engines and airframes were getting washed. Barrow was not deprived of several gallons of water each day, and that nasty old carbon/salt/residue/soap mixture was not besmirching its landscape. God is in heaven, and all is right with the world.

After several months, I was invited to visit PHI to review how my companies could improve and continue their support for it in the future. I had made a comment about the requirements above and thought I knew the complete story. “Au contraire, grasshopper.” What I didn’t know was that, in addition to the requirements above, the helicopters flying between Barrow and the offshore platform were required to maintain at least a 25-nm separation at all times to avoid a concentrated carbon footprint.

Is it just me or would flying off course by 12.5 nm generate a bigger footprint than a direct route? I must say, I have the greatest respect for PHI’s efforts to navigate these requirements like the professionally managed company that it is.

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