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Offshore oil needs safety body, report on deadly chopper crash says

The wreckage of Cougar Helicopter flight 491.

Paul Daly/Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

A "powerful" and independent safety regulator is needed to police Newfoundland's offshore industry, says the retired judge examining a helicopter crash that killed 17 last year.

Former Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court judge Robert Wells did not suggest in a massive report made public Wednesday that a lack of oversight contributed to the Cougar Flight 491 crash while it was heading to an oil platform. But he did note that regulation in the region lags other oil-producing jurisdictions.

"Independent and stand-alone safety regulators are now in place in Norway, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and the same concept is, I understand, being developed in the United States for the Gulf of Mexico," Mr. Wells wrote.

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The Canadian industry in the North Atlantic is currently overseen on behalf of the federal and provincial governments by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. This body, which established the inquiry Mr. Wells heads, handles both the sale of offshore parcels to drilling companies and the regulation of exploration and production.

In his 1,500-page report, Mr. Wells called for safety regulation to be removed from their control. If that proves impossible "for any reason," he recommended creation of an autonomous safety division within the C-NLOPB.

The C-NLOPB has 30 days to review his report. They have said that they will not comment until the end of that period.

This stage of the inquiry, which was not intended to assign blame for the crash of the Sikorsky S-92, was designed to assess whether the flight risk to rig workers was "as low as reasonably practicable." Mr. Wells will look next at what happened in the crash itself.

The family members of some offshore workers killed in the 2009 helicopter crash welcomed Mr. Wells' call for greater oversight. But they are keenly anticipating the next phase of his inquiry.

"Recommendations are all fine and good, and they may or may not be enacted, but I'm waiting to find out more about the chain of events," said Harold Mullowney, brother of victim Derrick Mullowney.

"I can't say much, not having read the report, but an extra set of eyes is always good," he added, when asked about an independent regulator. "Doesn't always work to police yourself."

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The Cougar Helicopters flight was carrying two crew members and 16 workers on a routine run to the offshore oil platforms in March of 2009 when a mayday call was issued. There was a failed attempt to reach land but, with no oil pressure in the main gearbox, the helicopter went down within minutes. Two passengers ended up outside the wrecked chopper before it sank to the ocean floor. Only one of them, Robert Decker, was recovered alive.

The crash is being probed by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, who have completed a draft report that has not been made public.

In his report, Mr. Wells urged workers to have more realistic scenarios when training to get out of a downed chopper, better access to safety information and the right to refuse night flying without penalty. But of the 29 recommendations, he called "the most important" his push for a new regulator.

"The interests and concerns of the public extend especially to safety, which encompasses prevention of injury, prevention of loss of life, and protection of the environment," he wrote in his closing remarks. "After catastrophic disasters over the years, the most recent being the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, we are beginning to understand that we are all stakeholders now."

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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