Pipeline Land Clearing Methods
By Ira Martin
Pipeline construction is continuing to expand oil and gas transportation infrastructure at a rapid pace to keep up with developments in North American shale regions and the Canadian oil sands. Along with these large-scale projects comes the necessity to clear the path for these pipelines, clearing unwanted trees, underbrush, limbs and intruding vegetation from the rights of way for gathering, transmission and distribution lines across the countryside.
Right-of-way (ROW) vegetation clearing is a crucial aspect of line maintenance that enables increased visibility and access to the pipeline. Such clearing may also enhance the integrity of the pipe itself, as noxious growth is kept off the top of the line. When gas or oil lines become “lost” and unkempt, they become a safety concern for the community and for pipeliners.
With this said, ROW mowing is seemingly simple — remove unwanted trees and brush, allow the ROW to become visible for pipeline management and the community, and leave a visually appealing path behind. Yet, the art of such work especially on mountainous, swampy and antiquated New England lines is slightly more complex. One company that understands the complexity of ROW mowing on harsh terrain is The Brush Crew at Quality Hardwood Custom Mowing. Company president David Martin and his team have taken consistent pride in all aspects ROW and commercial clearing since opening its doors in New Hampshire in 1979. The company has transformed much of its early philosophy and equipment to meet the growing demand of petroleum ROW clearing.
Seizing the Opportunity
In the early 1990s, The Brush Crew began transmission line work for several agencies within Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, mowing grass and light brush with a fleet of John Deere agricultural tractors with heavy-duty bush hog mowers. Martin and his Brush Crew had their first taste of the rugged New England lines during one of their contracts, mowing a 10-mile stretch of mountainous terrain with a 100-hp farm tractor on a pipeline that was built in the late 1940s and had been backfilled with large ledge and had several areas of exposed pipe. In the early 2000s, Martin was contacted by another pipeline owner in Massachusetts that was looking to side trim and mow on a narrow 30-ft ROW, where visibility via overhead flying was mandated by governmental agencies.
“It quickly became clear that I had to adapt to the needs of the job,” Martin says. “This meant purchasing equipment that was efficient, safe and easily maneuverable on rough terrain.”
Right-of-way clearing is a crucial aspect of pipeline maintenance. Mulching units help contractors keep vegetation from obstructing visibility.
The Brush Crew purchased a Skytrim 75 to side-trim trees on the ROW and a 10-ton excavator with a flail head to cut and mulch brush and trees along with residue from side trimming. Since purchasing the Skytrim 75, the business has predominately shifted toward ROW and utility clearing.
“We continued acquiring both small and large contracts for ROW mowing and brush and tree clearing, and as time progressed it became evident that an additional excavator would enhance our ability and diversify our operation,” Martin says. “One of the best decisions I made was to purchase an excavator with a mulching head. This machine expanded our business as the limit to where I could mow (over bankings, on steep hills, over fence lines, in swampy areas) was virtually limitless.”
In 2009, The Brush Crew’s excavator became much more efficient with the help of Fecon developing a fixed hammer forestry mulcher suitable to be placed on a 20,000-lb machine with-out the aid of a power pack dedicated purely to the mower head. This transformed the company’s excavator into a powerful mulching machine, capable of grinding 4- to 6-in. material and performing as well as machines twice its size, due to the added high flow hydraulics and two-stage motor. Most recently, The Brush Crew purchased a Kubota KX-080 Excavator and has outfitted it with an additional CEM 36 mulcher from Fecon.
In conjunction with excavator machines, the company uses compact track loaders with Fecon Bull Hog forestry mulchers. The excavator, compact track loader, and farm tractor applications complement each other nicely, and has expedited The Brush Crew’s capacity to clear large areas of ROW land swiftly.
Executing the Plan
“Although our past and current work has taken us all over New England, New York and Pennsylvania, we are currently involved on a project that runs from Rhode Island to southeast Massachusetts, through a predominantly residential area,” Martin says. “We are side trimming and mulching brushy vegetation and small trees.”
Original side trimming on old growth trees began in late fall and should last through the beginning of the winter months. Such a cleanup on more than 30 miles of ROW as constructed in the mid-1930s has called for not only mulching and trimming, but the removal of trees that are more than 100 years old in residential neighborhoods and near road crossings.
“On the older New England lines we work on, it is important for us to have the correct equipment,” Martin says. “It is not uncommon for a line to be 80-plus years old, with either rocky and mountainous terrain or swampy soils. These pieces of equipment with their low ground pressure and relatively small physical size can be carefully maneuvered up and over or down and through nasty terrain. Keeping the weight of the machines down, while keeping them compact and highly mobile, allows for easier access to tight spots, less erosion to the ground and happier land owners. I have learned that land owners are less likely to be distraught about movement across their land with smaller machines. The physical size of large construction equipment can be imposing, and if I can mitigate this distress for my customers and myself, I can keep machines moving and production climbing.
”When these types of diverse applications arise with many varying jobs needing to be accomplished, it further highlights the need for versatile equipment. The KX080 excavator can quickly be changed from a mulching machine to a log and stump cleanup machine with its standard two-stage flow divider and thumb and bucket attachments. Similarly, a Kubota SVL 90 compact track loader can be turned into almost any machine when it is not carrying a Fecon mulching head — the sky is the limit for attachments on both of these types of machines, and that is why they are in the fleet.”
Clear Cut Outcomes
“In our line of work, safety is the primary concern,” Martin says. “I have to rely on my equipment to productively and efficiently produce. Working on such lines I have learned that companys are highly interested in safety. When you are working deep in the woods, I can’t imagine having anything but safe, reliable and updated equipment.”
An emphasis on safe working procedures, state-of-the art equipment and a passion toward a quality product allows for a well-rounded approach to ROW mowing
“I pride myself in leaving a nice product behind, serving a need, and continuing a business that serves the community and the pipeline family across the New England states,” Martin says.
Ira Martin is the son of The Brush Crew president David Martin and a doctoral student at Boston University.