Families of chopper crash victims say Ottawa is failing to act on safety

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Ottawa is failing to act on key safety recommendations for the offshore oil sector, say families whose loved ones died in a helicopter crash off Newfoundland in 2009.

Transport Canada is proposing new regulations that would ground offshore choppers in weather or sea states that would make ditching in water unsafe. The department would also require that all crew members wear immersion suits and that all passengers have underwater breathing devices.

Those regulations make mandatory changes that have already been made in Newfoundland’s offshore industry since the crash of Cougar Flight 491 killed 17 of 18 people on board in March 2009.

But Lori Chynn, whose husband John Pelley died in the disaster, said she’s frustrated that Ottawa hasn’t acted to ensure choppers can run without gearbox oil for at least 30 minutes.

The Transportation Safety Board recommended a 30-minute run dry time in its 2011 report into the crash. It also called on the Federal Aviation Administration, the United States regulator, to assess whether choppers criss-crossing the rough seas off Newfoundland and in the Arctic should be able to run dry even longer.

The board blamed the crash in part on a catastrophic loss of oil from the main gearbox.

“What are we waiting for?” Chynn asked in an interview. “The bottom line is safety. We’ve got workers going offshore and it’s time.

“Is it dollars and cents? We’re making a lot of money off oil.”

In an emailed response Monday to a request for comment, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt’s office said her department is working with U.S. and European aviation regulators “regarding helicopter main gearbox design requirements.”

A Federal Aviation Administration memo in April 2011, posted on the Transportation Safety Board’s website, said a rule change for gearboxes would be proposed for future aircraft. But requiring new gearboxes on helicopters already in use would be costly for the industry, it said.

St. John’s East MP Jack Harris, the NDP’s defence critic, said Transport Canada’s reference to the need to work with international regulators is a poor excuse for inaction.

“I think they’ve just conceded to the desire to not pay the extra money or the extra costs. It can be solved by more money being spent to have proper helicopters being used that meet those requirements,” he said from Ottawa.

“They just have failed to do that.”

Danny Breen, whose brother Peter died on Cougar Flight 491, also called Monday for more independent oversight as recommended three years ago by a public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety.

The inquiry’s four-volume report in 2010 stressed the need for more “proactive and vigorous” regulation as companies seek oil farther from shore. Inquiry head Robert Wells also noted that a shift in 2009 to goal-based offshore regulation requires a powerful and independent safety watchdog.

Breen, who is a member of St. John’s city council, said the time for Ottawa to act is now.

“The focus of a separate offshore regulator for safety is so important because we have to deal with the reality of where the industry is going,” he said in an interview.

Critics say the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board is tasked with conflicting interests because it’s responsible for maximizing development of offshore resources as well as protecting workers and the environment.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale reiterated Monday in the legislature her government’s support for a separate safety agency. She said despite repeated attempts to raise the issue with the federal government, which jointly manages the offshore with the province, Ottawa has not agreed.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has said in the past that making such a change would be adding an extra layer of bureaucracy. An emailed response from his office Monday said the federal government takes the Wells inquiry recommendations seriously and is still reviewing them.

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