BELLEVILLE - Normally known as a quiet farming village, Belleville recently has heard the roar of the caterpillar engine and the clatter of pneumatic drills. But it isn't a road project that's causing a stir outside the town - instead, it's one of the largest private gas line projects on the east coast - an 81 mile pipeline employing more than 640 men and women and costing close to $200 million.
Dominion LLC's project spans several counties and numerous townships, making the full scope of the work hard to capture. As work crews throughout Mifflin, Juniata and Centre counties inch closer to Leidy in Clinton County, they pop in and out of the public view as they move forward, often with miles between crews.
"You'll see us move through here with one crew and think we're done ... but we're not. It's like the train chasing the caboose," said Greg Park, an inspector for the project. Park, along with Jessica Jordan, an engineer, and Bob Fulton, manager of community relations, were speaking outside of Valley View Haven, as Sheehan Construction LLC workers dug a trench nearby for the gas pipeline.
Sentinel photo by JEFF?BAST
Workers are seen reflected in the sunglasses of Greg Park, an inspector for the Dominion LLC natural gas pipeline project.
The men from Sheehan, based out of Tulsa, Okla., have been living in the area for the past year, some with their wives, others without their families.
Outside contractors make up about 50 percent of the 600-plus workers for the project, with the remainder coming from local unions, Fulton said.
"You have a lot of the local labor force (in use) as the pipeline gets built," Fulton said. That, he said, plus the contractors living in the area "does make an economic difference in the area they're going through."
Later, during lunch at Peachey's near Belleville, Park greeted pipeline workers as they came in for a bite to eat - dusty with clay and rock from the local soil. Fulton said it's a dirty job the men are doing, but one that most of them enjoy.
It can mean separation from loved ones for months at a time, but the pay is good and the job offers a chance to see the country, Park said.
Park compares them to a wandering "band of gypsies," who move into town for a job, work for a year or two, and then move on to their next location. The crew excavating the trench in Belleville came from a job in Wyoming, and when they're done here, will likely head out west to another project.
During the past year, the men and women have been at work, grading, digging, constructing and drilling, over mountains and under rivers and roads. Park said it is easiest to envision a train moving across central Pennsylvania; each work crew a car, moving over ground covered by a previous crew.
"It's quite a show that comes through," Park said.
Belleville is an excellent spot to take in a portion of the project and appreciate the scale of the work being done. On Jack's Mountain to the south, crews can be seen blasting in preparation for a 6-foot-deep ditch for the line. On the north side of Belleville, on Stoney Mountain, another crew is clearing rock.
On the valley floor in between, crews are moving forward at about a mile-a-day pace, which is about on target, Jordan explained.
"Terrain dictates your speed," Jordan said, explaining that on the great plains a crew could move about 2 to 3 miles a day, but in the mountainous terrain in Pennsylvania, they're happy to move a mile. Plus, the east coast is more developed than the great plains, which adds to the amount of work, Jordan said.
"We shoot for a mile-a-day," Park said. "(But) obviously on Jack's Mountain we didn't get 5,000 feet-a-day."
South of Belleville, the crew has cut a 75-foot swath through a cornfield. Top soil is mounded on the left side the of the right-of-way as the trench is cut into the ground on the right hand side.
Fulton said local farmers are paid both for the right-of-way and for the crops which have been disturbed. Once the pipe is laid and the trench filled in, the top soil will be replaced and the land can be replanted, he said.
"Next year, you come through here and you won't even know a pipeline is here," Fulton continued.
It's all part of the company's desire to be as unintrusive as possible, the three explain. They parallel existing right-of-ways when possible, bore under roadways and rivers and - whenever possible - make as little of an impact on the local environment as they can.
Park jokes about rattlesnakes, which he said the workers have encountered somewhat frequently in their work.
"They're under your car, in the pipe ... you have to keep an eye out," he said.
Because the snakes and other local species are endangered, the company has three to six on-staff biologists who are on call for when a snake or other critter is encountered. When they come across a snake, the scientists move the animals off the right-of-way, but not too far from their original homes.
But snakes and animals aren't the only curious observers the project attracts. As the crews move forward, local residents also tend to take time out of their day to watch the work and ask questions, Park said.
The crews don't mind the onlookers and are usually more than willing to answer questions, he explained.
'There's always curious people out to see what's going on," Park said. "Especially with a job this large spanning several counties. (On) a job this size, everyone is looking at you."
But it's not just local residents who come for a look: the project constantly is inspected by state and federal authorities to make sure it is constructed according to plan.
"Safety is primary," Fulton said. "That is the most important part of construction."
Once completed, the pipeline will be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as well as monthly walk throughs and fly overs by company and federal inspectors, Fulton said.
"Jess (Jordan) designs it, I build it and it needs to be safe and reliable," Park said.
"We expect it to be here for a long, long time," Fulton said. "Longer than us."
Outside Belleville, it's hard to hear as a caterpillar with a pneumatic drill is knocking rock and dirt loose at the business end of a 6-foot deep trench. The loosened dirt and rock is then scooped out by another excavator and piled adjacent to the trench, where it will wait to be replaced once the pipe layers move through. Up on Jack's Mountain, a cloud of dust is seen as another crew blasts a rock formation to make way for the energy conduit. The dust cloud hangs in the area for a little while before settling.
Park points up to Stoney Mountain, where the work of another grading crew is visible as it cuts a swath up the side of the valley. Each area of the nation has its own challenges in central Pennsylvania one of the chief environmental obstacles are the well known limestone rock deposits which must be dug out of the ground, Park said.
It makes life tough on the crews, but they're still ahead of schedule despite the geography's best effort to slow them down, he continued. Crews are already marching ahead into Centre County to prepare for the conduit, even as the pipe layers play catch up with the trench diggers outside Belleville.
Park shifts his gaze to the work on the valley's northern ridge, where the "train" is moving forward. Clearly visible from Belleville are the stone deposits the digging crew will have to contend with soon enough.
"They named Stoney Mountain very well," he says with a laugh.