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Letourneau Clears the Way for Far-Reaching Pipeline in N.Y.

Fri May 29, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

What goes through your mind when you get an invitation to bid on an out-of-state project? What if it is one of the largest projects your company has ever done?

“We went from excitement, to worry and then back to excitement,” said Mark Letourneau, president and director of operations of Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corporation, a second generation land clearing contractor based in Freetown, Mass. “We were proud and determined, full of optimism, and then became concerned. All that and more … just within the first fifteen minutes.”

Letourneau went on to explain that this project was part of the Millennium Pipeline: a 182 mi. (293 km), 30-in. (76.2 cm) diameter underground pipe that transports natural gas from Canada into New York and New Jersey. “We were invited by U.S. Pipeline Inc., based out of Houston, Texas, to bid on the first stage, clearing and grubbing, so that U.S. Pipeline crews could do their job.”

Letourneau Products Manufacturing was asked to bid on the project because, according to Letourneau, his company has done many clearing and grubbing projects for other pipeline companies and had established a reputation for delivering quality work on time and on budget.

“I suppose the lesson to be learned is that there is no such thing as a small job; you’re building a name for yourself regardless of the size of what you’re working on so you better pay attention to what you are doing at all times! Just being part of the group invited to bid made us feel proud,” he said.

From the time they were invited to bid, things started moving pretty quickly for Letourneau Products.

“In February we heard that we were awarded the project. In March we were finding places for our crew to live and renting equipment. We believe that planning is pretty much always what makes the difference between success and failure, but for a job as complex and challenging as this one, planning was even more important!” Letourneau said.

Letourneau and his partners, his brother Gary and cousin Bob Letourneau, are used to working as a team,

“We each focus on doing what we do best and we also know how to collaborate. We put our heads together to consider what each step would require and the best way to handle it,” he said.

Letourneau turned to Milton CAT to provide the right tools for his company to accomplish its plan.

“They [Milton CAT] are the only ones who can support this type of job with the combination of forestry and excavation equipment, the service and parts back-up, and the options from CAT Financial,” he said, adding that his family and Milton CAT have worked together since Pamphile and Real Letourneau founded the company 50 years ago. “There is something to be said when you can count on the type of relationship with a company that will help and support you in accomplishing such an important job.”

Assembling the fleet required some serious thinking.

“To begin with, describing the project as land clearing maybe doesn’t do it justice,” said Bob Letourneau, adding that there are several steps involved in the clearing – cutting, chipping, hauling the chips, pulling the stumps and grinding them, building bridges and matting wetlands. “We needed to rely on several different kinds of equipment. We begin by mowing the brush with skid steers so we can see what we are dealing with, and then use feller bunchers to take down the trees. Processors cut, clean and lay trees off to the side of the right-of-way. Skidders and chippers are used for tops and small trunks, and then excavators pull the stumps and pile them so that they can be ground by the track grinders — it’s a moving assembly line.”

Purchasing equipment doesn’t always make sense, and the Letourneaus appreciated the different options they had to choose from. “It’s one of the most overused expressions, but honestly, being able to partner with your supplier makes a huge difference. You realize they are in business to make money just like you are, but they are also trying to do what’s best for you,” said Bob Letourneau. (Buying, leasing and renting options were considered, and for each machine the decision was carefully discussed.)

Approximately 80 percent of the equipment Letourneau bought or rented was Caterpillar; and although some of the company’s equipment came from other manufacturers, they were able to finance almost everything they needed through CAT Financial.

The Millennium Pipeline primarily will follow existing utility easements — in many areas simply replacing older Columbia Gas pipelines to help deliver much needed new supplies of natural gas to New York and the Northeastern United States.

According to the Letourneaus, the overall pipeline installation sequence involves the clearing and grubbing team removing brush, trees and stumps, and installing erosion control devices. The right-of-way (ROW) is graded, and then topsoil is separated from subsoil. Blasting rock as needed comes next, and excavators do the trenching.

The pipe, delivered to the ROW in segments, is welded together, tested and then placed in the trench. The trench is backfilled, topsoil is replaced, any debris is removed and then the ROW is re-graded and seeded. After the pipeline is pressure-tested, gas begins to flow.

Before any part of the installation process can begin, however, required permits and approvals needed to be secured. Millennium Pipeline received a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Permits and approvals also were received from the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and New York State Historic Preservation Office. The New York Public Service Commission provides pipeline safety oversight under authority from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Pipeline Safety.

Given the rough terrain, the fact that crews are working under power lines and machines are clustered together, safety is a number one priority for the Letourneau crew.

“We have daily tailgate safety meetings and a weekly safety meeting with the contractor, as well as a comprehensive health and safety program in place; that’s how serious we are about the safety of our employees and of those with whom they come into contact. During our daily tailgate safety meetings, we cover which areas of our operation we need to pay special attention to that day, and where everyone will be working, in case someone needs help,” said Bob Letourneau.

After easements were negotiated on the affected properties, surveyors marked the ROW for the clearing crew to start its work.

“Besides health and safety, two of U.S. Pipeline’s main concerns were staying on the ROW and being protective of the wetlands and water bodies. Staying within the ROW was not always an easy requirement to meet, given the rough terrain and the high number of unpredicted and surprising environmental issues,” said Mark Letourneau.

The clearing work was divided into five spreads, and Letourneau Products won the bid to implement spreads one and two.

“We were in charge of clearing the land from Corning to Binghamton, and then from Binghamton to Hancock,” said Mark Letourneau, adding that although the two spreads were separate jobs, they looked at it as one large project with everyone giving 100 percent to make both spreads run smoothly and supplying whatever support was needed for both, often sending equipment and/or personnel between the two spreads.

Being the first crew on the site means dealing with some serious pressure.

“Nobody else can get started on their job until and unless we have finished our portion,” said Bob Letourneau. “Some days you can literally feel the movement of the D-8s and 345s of the grading crew right on your heels.”

According to Mark Letourneau, the ideal cushion to be left between completion of the land clearing and the moment the grading equipment gets to the site is one week, but it often got down to a much smaller buffer, sometimes hours.

There were other challenges. “In theory, the fact that the terrain was not all virgin land, since the pipeline runs parallel to an old gas line and under existing power lines, should have made things easier. In fact, that added a problem,” said Bob Letourneau, who pointed upward and added, “There goes the power to the city of New York. It gets pretty tight here, but if one of our machines knocks down the line, we’re going to have some serious issues.”

Mark Letourneau said that as tough as the terrain is (he described it as “brutal”) crews were prepared for it. One example is the ATV in the back of his pickup truck. “I cannot drive the truck up and down the line, it wouldn’t last a week,” he said. People in the region joke that “they grow rocks” in this area of New York.

The schedule is extremely challenging, as well. “There are approximately 50 U.S. Pipeline machines right behind us; if you so much as burp, you bring everyone to a stop,” said Bob Letourneau. But crews still managed to meet the timetable, in the worst case getting down to an uncomfortable close time gap but staying within the parameters.

Maintaining uptime is a major concern for the clearing company.

“As you can imagine, we have absolutely no room for error. We cannot be down. Period,” said Bob Letourneau. With the number of machines, the steep and rough terrain, and the project time frame, the Letourneaus have referred to Caterpillar’s involvement in the project as “the Super Bowl of service.”

Milton CAT set the groundwork long before the work started by scheduling coordination meetings with the Letourneaus. Milton CAT dedicated a service technician to be onsite full-time. The Letourneau team had Joe Perry, a Milton CAT technician out of the Binghamton location, on its payroll, and the company kept him busy.

Mark Letourneau compared a service department with a hospital emergency room. “You’d rather not know, first hand, that your local hospital has an excellent emergency room, but if you do need them, it sure makes a difference that they are first rate. The same is true with a service department.”

The president of Letourneau Products and his partners agreed. “We did have some new machine break-in issues, but Milton CAT was always there, working all night sometimes so that a machine we needed the next morning would be ready — whatever it took.”

Planning and success always comes back to people, according to the Letourneaus

“From the owner to the individual employees on both spreads, U.S. Pipeline was a first class company to work for,” said Mark Letourneau, “And, the support of the people at Continental Biomass Industries Inc., Morbark of New England, TimberPro, Milton CAT and CAT Financial was crucial; but our biggest appreciation goes to our own employees; they gave their all — the old ones who spent a long time away from their homes and families, and the new ones, who’ve proven themselves to be key members of the team.” CEG

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