Out to sea – Nevada County resident spends half his year on isolated oil platform | TheUnion.com

Out to sea – Nevada County resident spends half his year on isolated oil platform

Today, The Union kicks off “Odd Jobs,” a new series about area residents with unusual occupations. To suggest a subject, contact the reporter at the e-mail address below or call 477-4236.

Mike Potter of Big Oak Valley spends less time commuting to work in a week than his neighbors who have jobs in Sacramento, gets to spend a lot of time with his two sons, and works just 24 weeks a year.

Of course, he does work on an oil platform in the Santa Maria Basin near Vandenberg Air Force Base, where his job as a safety officer requires him to put in 12-hour days, seven days a week. And the commute is six hours one way.

But after 20 years in the oil business and 14 years on the platform, Potter isn’t ready to give it up for any other way of life.

“I get to spend a lot of time with my kids,” he said. “Hunting, fishing – we can do things on Mondays when other fathers are working.”

When Potter’s working, however, he can miss school open houses and Little League games.

“If anything is going to break, it seems to happen the week I’m working,” he said.

Potter spent his teenage years in Santa Maria, where he went to work for Unocal after graduating from high school. He stayed on the platform when Unocal sold it to Plains Exploration.

He’s responsible for “basically everything involving safety,” Potter said. The platform, its pipelines and associated facilities have over 600 safety devices, and Potter is responsible for testing equipment on the platform regularly.

Operators of the platform have to meet safety and environmental standards set by the federal government, the state and Santa Barbara County. U.S. Department of Interior Minerals Management Service personnel make regular inspections of the rig.

Platform Irene, which is situated in 242 feet of water, is built to withstand an 8.5 magnitude earthquake, 25-foot waves and winds in excess of 100 kilometers per hour. But it’s no place for people who don’t like heights.

The platform’s three decks are accessible by stairs that are over the water (the lowest deck is about 45 feet from the water), so first-time visitors are always asked by Potter if they are afraid of heights.

“If they are, I tell them to just look straight ahead when they’re going down the stairs,” Potter said.

Heights aren’t a problem for the 15 crew members when they’re on the platform. Some have worked there since it was built in 1985.

All crew members have roommates, are fed three times a day, and have access to a weight room and satellite television when they aren’t working. Potter uses his free time to read, plowing through two or three suspense and crime novels a week when he’s on the platform.

When the Potters decided to buy a house, they first looked in the Lake Tahoe area, where Potter spent his childhood. They finally decided on Big Oak Valley because Potter needed to be below the snow line, and his father lives in nearby Browns Valley.

Since moving to Big Oak Valley in 1995, Potter has made the six-hour drive to Santa Maria and 15-minute helicopter trip to the platform every other week.

His sons, 15 and 11, are used to the schedule.

“I’ve been doing this since they were little, so this is all they know,” he said.

And Potter is convinced the commute is a small price to pay for the opportunity to live in western Nevada County.

“We really like it up here, especially the schools. They’re incredible.”

The rundown

Job: Oil platform safety officer

Duties: Regularly test all safety-related equipment on the off-shore platform to ensure it’s operating properly and meets standards set by the federal government. Depending on the device, testing is performed weekly, monthly or quarterly.

Training required: Completion of several classes on various aspects of safety equipment, including a one-week course on firefighting at Texas A&M University. Attendance at regular refresher courses.

Pay: Up to $80,000 a year, according to Web site rigworker.com.

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