Life on the Pipeline

For surveyors in the northeast, the recent boom in natural gas means steady work, but it’s a difficult job. Crews on the Katie Pipeline in Pennsylvania spent six months onsite working on the project, which, although riddled with design challenges and construction complications, proved to be well worth the effort.

By Eric M. Orndorff, MS, PLS, and Brian C. Farrell, BA

Over the past four years the northeastern United States has experienced an energy renaissance related to the development of natural gas resources.  Exploration and production began in Pennsylvania in the Marcellus Shale formation, expanded to portions of the formation in northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio, and now include part of the Utica Shale formation.

As a result, there has been an increase in jobs in the region, generating a significant impact on the surveying profession.  While the reward is high in terms of job creation, this work moves at a pace reminiscent of previous land-development projects, but advanced into overdrive.  Deadlines are demanding, and long commutes are a necessity just to get to the work.  Long working hours and time away from home are common.

These projects primarily require site boundary and topographic surveying to support the preparation of plats and permit drawings for well pad development.  The most demanding projects, however, are the pipeline projects.  While the well site surveys are “quick hits” to survey and map existing conditions or to perform minor layout work, the pipeline surveys are more extensive.  Pipeline layout work is the most demanding of all because construction continues seven days a week.

Pipeline projects in the region began emerging soon after wells began producing natural gas.  Some exploration and production companies partner with pipeline companies, while others develop wells and install pipelines themselves.  Stone Energy Corporation is a producer that currently installs their own pipelines.  Traditionally an offshore oil company, Stone Energy began acquiring and developing plots within the Marcellus Shale footprint nearly four years ago.  They are actively developing wells now in West Virginia, but some of their first producing wells and pipelines are in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. 

One such project in the area is the eight-and-a-half-mile-long Katie Pipeline.  We served as the project manager and crew chief for this project for Herbert, Rowland, & Grubic, Inc. (HRG), a full-service civil engineering firm serving Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Maryland. 

The Katie Pipeline project turnaround time was 13 months, from the first field visits and surveying to construction completion in the summer of 2011.  Although this short turnaround for a pipeline project of this size may make it appear to have been a piece of cake, it was riddled with design challenges and construction complications that produced many revealing anecdotes. 

Cruel Weather

The weather presented one of the most significant challenges to this project.  Stakeout of the limits of disturbance (LOD) and right of way began in early February when temperatures were routinely in the low teens in the early morning, sometimes as low as 0 degrees.  Nearly 18 to 24 inches of snow covered the ground almost continuously during the first month, with some snowdrifts reaching 30 inches.  Additionally, an environment of rugged terrain and forests required crews to hike in to their work areas daily, which often took 30 minutes one way.  Two surveying crews braved the elements for nearly a month, setting LOD stakes on either side of the route to define the corridor for the clearing and grubbing crew to follow.  They spent their weeknights at the Montrose Inn, in the quaint town of Montrose, the county seat of Susquehanna County and some 30 minutes east of the project site.  On their way to work each morning they stopped at the “Castle,” a convenience store and gas station housed in an old, stone, castle-like building in Lawton, where they filled their mugs with coffee and grabbed enough food and drinks to last the entire day.

On one particularly cruel morning, the crew needed to stake a section of LOD that required both GPS and conventional survey methods; however, access was a problem.  The only options were to hike two miles along the route or park at the bottom of a hill and walk an eighth of a mile uphill into a small thicket of woods.  They decided that the shortest distance would be the best approach, since their gear for the day included a GPS rover, a total station, a tripod, a prism pole, a frost pin, a 12-pound sledge hammer, two bundles of heavy oak stakes, and the data collector.

The first challenge our team encountered was finding a place to park to gain access.  The surveyors knew of an old farm lane at the edge of the main road, but the snow was deep, and running the Suburban through it was unthinkable.  They spent an hour shoveling out a spot just so they could park the truck with its rear end off the road and hoped that was good enough.

Snowshoes were a must.  The party chief, Brian Farrell, had received his as a gift from his wife several Christmases before, but until this project had barely had an opportunity to use them.  Once strapped into their shoes, the team ceremoniously loaded themselves down with the equipment: first a bundle of stakes over one shoulder, then the total station, and they all filled both hands with a prism pole or sledge.

The trek began somewhat easily with 100 feet of slight grade below the base of the hill.  It looked more menacing ahead: a 35% vertical grade straight to the pipeline right of way at the very top.  Up they went, plodding away, one foot after the other.

The plan of attack seemed simple enough: proceed for 50 steps, stop for a break, then 50 more steps, and then another break. And so on.  This went on for what seemed like an hour.  “Heads down and forward march” was the mantra. Temperatures were less than ideal, and while the sun was out, it provided no warmth.  The windy conditions froze the sweat on their faces, and their legs burned from the steep climb. 

And that was just to get to the site.


As the time approached for construction in March, we began a rotation to ensure HRG had a crew on-site seven days a week.  To this end, we rented a house conveniently located at the southern end of the pipeline project.  Some of the client’s foremen and inspectors stayed in nearby towns, and the construction company employees from Linde Corporation returned nearly an hour each day to the Scranton Wilkes-Barre area.  The location of our rental, the “Laceyville House” as we called it, allowed close access to and optimal time on the pipeline so that we could easily meet daily demands of the project, and it also allowed us to be near the other workers. 

The house was furnished for residency and equipped with a layout table and computer to create an environment suitable for the project teams.  Because mobile phone service was almost non-existent throughout the pipeline corridor, including in the house, we minimized our overhead expenses by using phone service through a low-cost internet provider.  This allowed the crew members to access the company network and teams back at our offices for support and to contact family and friends.
As the snow began to melt, we were able to put a UTV on site.  Many days the crew could simply drive out from the house in the UTV and quickly gain access to the pipeline.  The house’s detached garage was accommodating with three bays: one for the Suburban, one for the UTV, and one for storing stakes and other equipment (that bay doubled as a place to grill under cover when the weather was less than ideal).

From Snow to Rain

And oh, how it rained.  By the time the pipeline construction ended in August of 2011, Pennsylvania had seen the most rainfall in one year since the flooding of Hurricane Agnes in 1972.  Heavy snowmelt followed by heavy spring rainfalls were a major obstacle.  The lack of construction progress early on dampened spirits and at times had tensions running high.  The clearing and grubbing crew was “run off” (fired from) the pipeline for falling behind schedule because they did not have adequate equipment and were slowed by the weather. 

Welders also experienced difficulties.  A natural gas transmission pipeline consists of lengths of pipe, mostly straight, some with bends to conform to both the horizontal and vertical layout of the route, welded together end to end. They are welded together by the side of the trench to form a ribbon of pipe, which is then laid by side-boom cranes. 

Before the pipe is set in place, each weld is x-rayed and given a number. The x-ray technician then either passes or fails the weld. Failing welds must be cut completely out and the pipe must then be welded back together, holding up progress.  Each welder was given three strikes by the inspectors: If any had a sum of three failing welds on the pipeline, he was run off (fired) on the spot. 

The Federal Department of Transportation requires pipeline companies to provide as-built information on pipelines, which includes the station and number of each weld and particular attribute info on the intervening length of pipe, such as: manufacturer, date of manufacture, type of pipe (extrusion formed or longitudinal weld,) etc.  This information is gathered in case a problem arises either in the pipeline itself or with a particular manufacturer.  As we provided stakeout of the alignment in advance of the trenching crew, we bounced back to measure stations to survey welds and collect attribute information on sections of pipe that had been recently laid in the trench before being covered up.  Sometimes the rock shield was placed around the pipe before our crew was able to get to survey the weld, which made obtaining attributes about the weld and inspection difficult.


As warmth ushered in early summer, “Little Smoky” arrived at the Lacyville house:  a Weber grill about the size of a steering wheel.  The crews found a local butcher who sold bundled packages of meat, so most days ended at the house with crews prepping for a feast of marinated chicken or ribeye steaks.  The construction crews from northeastern Pennsylvania would honk and jeer as they passed us, sitting in lawn chairs out in the driveway, watching smoke billowing out of the grill, knowing that a good meal at the end of the day was still an hour’s drive away for them.  Other times they would stop in to catch up or recount the day’s events.During the last month of the project, Mitsy arrived.  Mitsy was a miniature collie that belonged to a project inspector’s mother who needed to spend time in the hospital.  Because no dogs were allowed on the pipeline, the project inspector would drop Mitsy off at our house each morning, putting her inside the screened porch.  In the evening she would hang out with the crew as we sat waiting for Little Smoky to warm up.

While other pipeline projects in the area were halted due to the wet spring, the construction of the Katie Pipeline continued due to the leadership of Stone Energy’s project manager, Ron Shafer, and site foreman, Dan Williams.  The central processing facility (CPF) was completed in the fall, and in January final land development approval of the CPF was received, with classification of the pipeline and filing with the Public Utility Commission occurring in March.

In all, our crews spent nearly six months onsite for the construction of the project.  Life on the pipeline wasn’t always easy, and there were certainly days when things didn’t go as planned. All in all, though, this project helped our team to develop new skills and to mature as professionals. We learned to be more creative problem solvers. We adapted to our surroundings, worked diligently, built relationships, and overcame project adversities.

Eric M. Orndorff, MS, PLS, is director of survey services for HRG ( and was the project manager for the pipeline project.

Brian C. Farrell, BA is a survey crew chief for HRG and served in this role for this project.

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