Oil Rig access could be in jeopardy

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Posted by Ken Kurtis on August 29, 2004 at 21:49:37:

FYI to the community in general, this was sent Sunday night to all boats, clubs, shops:
Ladies & Gents,

You're receiving this because you're in my files as either a boat operator, store owner, dive club leader/represetnative, or Instructor/DM who dives the Aera Energy Oil Rigs off of Huntington Beach (Eureka, Ellen, & Elly).

As you may recall, shortly after 9/11/01, we lost access to the Rigs. Roughly two years ago, on behalf of the entire SoCal diving community, I negotiated a deal with Aera Energy (owners of the Rigs), the U.S. Coast Guard (now part of the Department of Homeland Security), and the Department of the Interior (who oversees offshore operations) so that we could start diving the Rigs again.

The central part of the agreement was that we came up with a set of written dive protocols that you are required to follow if you are going to dive the Rigs. A draft was circulated for comments. Once it was finalized, every boat operator got a copy of this. Every shop/club/leader on my list was sent a copy. The protocols were posted on two local Internet bulletin boards. Bottom line: They were widely disseminated and publicized. "I didn't know" doesn't cut it as a response. If you're going to dive there, you have an obligation to know the rules for doing it.

The current problem is that some people/groups/boats are not adhering to the protocols and that is jeopardizing access for everyone. I got a call this weekend from the Aera area supervisor about this, informing me that Aera is concerned and may be re-evaluating access. (They're also non-too-pleased about the Drifting Dan incident, but I'll get to that in a moment.)

The biggest problem seems to be what has always been the most contentious part of the protocol agreement: There's no game-taking of any sort allowed on the Rigs. Yet divers have been observed with some frequency reboarding the boats with goodie bags full of game, mainly scallops. Now I'm well aware that some of you think that "no-game" is something that I engineered. But the fact of the matter is that the no-game request came from Aera, not me, because the firm that cleans the legs of the rigs has a contract that says they're entitled to any and all game. In addition, Aera's second position is that since the game (scallops) are attached to the rig, they're part of the rig, and any contact with the rig is a trespassing violation.

But here's the reality: Regardless of where the no-take rule comes from, regardless of whether or not you like it or not, those are the rules by which we agreed to play. If you can't abide by them, then simply don't dive the rigs. Go somewhere else. If you feel the rig trips are good for your boat/club/business, then realize that these are the rules we need to voluntarily adhere to them and we need to put peer pressure on others who don't.

One reason we got access back is that we were able to tell Aera that we as a group were responsible enough to be self-policing and could adhere to an agreement. For a host of reasons, they're still not-too-crazy about us diving there. But they'll grit their teeth as long as they think we're responsible and willing to abide by the rules. However, not living up to the terms of the protocol agreement does not help our case.

Unfortunately, neither did Drifting Dan. They only recently became aware of the incident and I'm told it's gotten the attention of upper management at Aera. Not that there's anything we can do about it now (I explained to Julian - and he seemed to agree and understand - that the whole thing started with diver error) but we should do everything in our power to make sure it doesn't happen again. This means making sure that divers adhere to the protocol rules which not only cover game, but also include staying with buddies, not losing sight of the rig, surfacing where you're dropped, and other things.

Although not specifically part of the original protocol, Aera is also requesting that we encourage divers not to go inside the rig, but simply to stay outside the perimeter. Their concern is that divers may get too close to an uptake tube and get sucked into the fire suppression system of the rig or trapped by something else. I'm going to talk with Julian further about this but, at least for the moment, we should request that everyone stay on the outside of the rig structure.

Please also remember that you're required to give advance notification to both the Rigs and the Coast Guard 24-72 hours prior to doing a dive there and that diving is strictly limited to commercial dive vessels (no private boats). They turned away a boat within the last week or so because the boat hadn't bothered to call ahead nor register with the USCG. They've also been having the USCG chase away some of the private boats that are not authorized to be there. So they're trying to tighten up a bit.

If we can get the game issue under control, I think we'll be all right. If we can't, one of two things will happen. The mild step is that permission-to-dive will be denied to boats who violate the no-game rule. (Just so you know, they're going to start taking pictures of violating vessels.) That denial might be on a day-by-day basis, or it could be suspension of diving privileges for a boat for a few months. And if that doesn't work, or if there are too many boats thumbing their noses at the protocols, then they may just say the hell with it, and close the rigs down again.

Personally, I'd hate to see that happen. Aside from being good for my business and good for the dive boats, I think rig access is good for our diving community as well. It's a unique environment, it's a really cool dive, and it's something divers in our area seem to be genuinely excited about doing. Let's make sure that we don't lose this opportunity.


Ken Kurtis
NAUI Instr. #5936
Co-owner, Reef Seekers Dive Co.
Beverly Hills, CA

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