Subcontractors for CO₂ producer Kinder Morgan will continue seismic studies on the Doe Canyon project area.
However helicopter use for that project has been halted, a nearby seismic study area is under review for air support following a fatal crash last week near Dove Creek.
“All flight activity is grounded at this time due to the accident and tragic death of the pilot,” said Bob Clayton, a Kinder Morgan field supervisor. “It has been a real shock to everyone. The workers have gone through some counseling to help them deal with the tragedy.”
The helicopter crashed from a low altitude last Tuesday while assisting in seismic study operations east of Dove Creek. The pilot, A.J. Blain, of Montana based Billings Flying Service, died on impact, and the crash debris narrowly missed nearby ground crews.
An investigation into the crash by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board is just beginning, and no time line for results has been announced.
“We’re also conducting an in-house investigation,” Clayton said.
Work will finish up at the Doe Canyon seismic study area where the accident occurred, but without air support, said Wayne Whitner, CEO of Tidelands Geophysical Company, (TGC).
The Plano, Texas, company is one of the project’s seismic contractors.
“We’re aware that this industry is a strong employer in the area, and we will be carrying on with our Doe Canyon phase,” Whitner said.
He said a nearby seismic project called the Cow Canyon 3D Survey is under review by Kinder Morgan as a result of the accident.
“That project is being studied to determine if there will be helicopter support there. If we use them, there will probably be even more equipment testing than the strict protocols already in place,” Whitner said.
The Bell UH-IH owned by Billings Flying Service was inspected by the FAA 12 hours before being deployed to the construction site. Whitner said the craft passed and had been cleared to operate.
“We don’t think it was pilot error,” Whitner said.
The Cow Canyon study area encompasses 93 square miles of mostly private land on the west side of Highway 491 near Pleasant View and Cahone. It is scheduled for review by the Montezuma County planning commission July 25, at 6 p.m.
Planning assistant LeeAnn Milligan said private landowners in that area prefer helicopter use for seismic studies because it cuts down drastically on truck and vehicle traffic.
“They won’t like it (without helicopters) because it would mean a lot of back and forth of trucks hauling equipment,” she said, adding the plan may have to be revisited if helicopters are not used, to try to mitigate additional traffic impacts.
Helicopters are a key component for modern seismic studies because they are efficient, can access rugged areas, and are less invasive than truck traffic. Often their use is a requirement by the BLM and the Forest Service to reduce a project’s impacts on roads and natural or cultural resources.
Geophysical seismic studies use a series of sensors and strategically placed explosives to record underground geology.
Three heli-portable drills rigs are positioned around a target area. Explosives are inserted into bore holes up to 45 feet deep. When the charges go off, pre-set receiver units crisscrossing the target area pick up sonar echoes from below, and the data is recorded on a computer. The receivers are collected and loaded onto the chopper into huge bags, and the heli-portable rigs are flown to the next location.
It is not uncommon for up to three helicopters to leapfrog each other carrying the portable drilling rigs to different positions. For the Cow Canyon proposal, documents show 27,000 receiver positions are planned. A combination of specialized-seismic vibe trucks and explosives create the underground 3D image.
Kinder Morgan engineers then analyze the data.
“It is the number-one technology right now,” Clayton. “The 3D image is very beneficial, it is like having eyes underground showing where the rock is more porous and capable of sustaining good production.”