HDD: An Environmental Home Run

EDITOR’S NOTE: The ‘Last Word’ is an occasional column featuring comments from various industry personnel. The purpose of this opinion article is to provide an open forum for candid discussion of various industry issues and concerns, and to explore solutions to these needs.

In just a few short decades, the use of horizontal directional drilling, as a method to install pipelines and utilities, has become common place.

The advantages of HDD are two-fold. HDD has already saved billions if not trillions of dollars in bottom line construction costs.Whether it is the avoidance of road, highway and railway closures or allowing multi-faceted use of the same property, the benefits of HDD to the construction industry are tremendous. More than that, HDD is the construction industry’s contribution to the environmental movement. In the context of real benefits, HDD is an environmental home run. Thanks to the development of HDD, trenching and open cutting through environmentally delicate areas have all but been eliminated. There is no longer a need to stir toxins settled in bay and river bottoms, killing fish, wildlife and poisoning the water down steam. Because of HDD, wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas remain virtually undisturbed. Even so, current environmentalists are failing to recognize HDD is not the enemy. In fact, HDD is their very best tool to protect the environment.

From day one, everyone understood HDD was an added expense and financially, very risky — not just because of the unknowns of what would be encountered below ground, but because of the sheer complexity of what the HDD contractor was being asked to accomplish. Somewhat of a construction enigma, where greater quantities usually reduce the price, the opposite is true with HDD. Gravity itself opposes the idea of creating a horizontal hole a larger the diameter and longer drill increases risk. The stress to the equipment needed to drill and remove the vast amounts of formation, while keeping the resulting hole (more accurately described as a tunnel) from collapsing, are far greater than that placed on the same equipment when used in vertical drilling projects.

The concept was simple: those involved discussed, analyzed and calculated costs based on all the potential risk. The environmentalists and HDD contractors were on the same team. If the benefits to the owner exceeded the risks, the HDD project would proceed. Although none of these risks (nor the complexity of what HDD contractors accomplish) has gone away, neither have the enormous environmental benefits.

Environmental confusion
Why have environmentalists become confused about HDD? The economic and environmental benefits have contributed to the unprecedented growth of HDD solidifying its permanent position in the pipeline and utility industry. There is no question that the growth has produced a severe shortage of HDD related experience and created critical positions without a pool from which to acquire knowledgeable personnel. HDD contractors were once an important part of the planning team, working closely with project managers and environmentalist to be sure proper procedures were followed. This interaction, during the planning and drilling stages, established the inter-vocational cross-training needed to maintain adequate experience levels at key positions. The structure has changed as breed of self-proclaimed HDD consultants have inserted themselves between contractors and project owners. This added layer separates knowledgeable contractors from those who need the benefits of horizontal directional drilling, stunting the education, skills and experience level of construction managers and environmentalists, while at the same time creating a situation that can favor more inept HDD contractors. The risk of incidents is increased due to filtered communications and problematic project designs. The more HDD educated the construction industry becomes, the true added value of the consultant is exposed. Most owners and project environmentalists may not even know the problem exists but HDD contractors must accept the contracts as written or risk submitting an alternative bid which will likely be rejected.

Because directionally drilled crossings help preserve rivers, wetlands and reclamation areas, everyone understands the permitting authorities are concerned about protecting the area. That is why the owners are going to the extra expense, plus an added risk of utilizing HDD. As they join the industry, today’s environmentalists are losing sight of the overall HDD benefit, failing to learn the details and skills involved; instead they are focusing on miniscule, mostly temporary, cosmetic intrusions upon the areas in question. The concept that provides green jobs is dependent on the idea that progress and the environment coexist. It is similar to endoscopic surgery, far less invasive but that doesn’t mean there is no scar and that there are no risks. HDD is the environmentalist’s tool used to minimize impact on the area.

Successful HDD projects are complex but require three basic components; proper design, accurate guidance and the ability to remove the formation creating a clean, straight hole that will accommodate the line being installed. The environmentalist must understand the interworking of the entire procedure and exercise their authority ensure that proper methods are planned and utilized. Even today, most will agree that restrictions on a contractor’s ability to perform these fundamentals expand the likelihood of a negative result. The problem is that the ability to properly perform each of these vital aspects of work is being negotiated away long before the HDD contractor becomes involved. Since the consulting environmentalists have nothing at stake, self justification for their presence must take the form of disrupting the progress of the contractor. Harmless incursions that impose no long or short-term environmental impact needlessly become drama filled confrontations.

Bad judgment
Environmental oversight is necessary, but stupidity can’t be excused by simply playing the environmental card. Pages could be written about projects shut down because of a dead fish or tracking wire required to be an inch above the ground so snails could crawl under it or ridicules mandates concerning arbitrary pressure readings or restrictions against use of river water requiring contractors to instead haul treated water from miles away using dozens of eighteen-wheel haul trucks, creating a much greater environmental footprint (not to mention the increased traffic danger to the local residents), than simply using the water direct from the river; especially since the city’s treated water comes from the river anyway. These examples, which could go on forever, are not extreme and are not the exception. Almost every project has a degree of mandated foolishness with no environmental benefit being realized.

If the process was called Engineered Environmental Installation (EEI) instead of Horizontal Directional Drilling, the work might be less of a target. In fact, poor engineering is one of the HDD contractor’s biggest problems. Projects are routinely designed at minimal distance and at minimal radius. Why would anyone who claims to be able to design and manage an HDD project create a plan that cannot be drilled? There are only two answers, the person in charge didn’t know what he was doing or it was a premeditated attempt to cheat the contractor. Not only is it a waste of time and money but these issues greatly increase the chances of incidents. The end result is generally two or three wasted days at the contractor’s expense, followed by an approved increase in the drills footage, at no extra pay for the HDD contractor. Because they are involved in the pre-drill planning, environmentalists should have enough knowledge to mandate the design firm create a drill plan that increases chances for success. Once the project has gone out for bid, this window is closed.

Next to poor designs, the most misunderstood issue is the fluid used to remove formation from the hole. Again, the term drilling mud creates tension and needless worry, conjuring up visions of sticky oil, ripe with hazardous chemicals contaminating rivers and local drinking water. Nothing could be further from the truth. Twenty years ago the Directional Crossing Contractors Association did a great job of establishing the facts and educating the public concerning the methods used by HDD contractors. Time has blurred the truth and the industry has expanded to such a position that misinformed environmentalists are blindly fighting against their own cause. The facts are simple: the fluid is necessary to complete the job but isn’t an environmental hazard. Although not that tasty, the fluid can be safely consumed. People go to spas and pay big bucks to bathe in mud for health reasons. Why aren’t the environmentalists concerned?

Understand the process
Those in supervisory positions need to understand the process of how the project is accomplished. To create a hole the formation must be removed. The longer and larger the line the more formation that must be moved to the surface and the drilling fluid is the conveyor belt. As the drill head moves forward the contractor pumps water, mixed with bags of powdered clay, through the inner diameter of the pipe. The small particles of drilled formation are suspended in the fluid and pumped back to the surface, around the outside of the pipe, then circulated through a cleaning system, removing the solids and the fluid is reused. If the drilled formation isn’t circulated out of the hole, the pipe would become stuck or the product line may not have enough clearance to allow installation. The type of clay, mixed with the water, is called bentonite. The bentonite is organic. The fluids coming from the hole are nothing more than water, clay and whatever the makeup of the local formation may be. Farmers and ranchers like the discarded drilling fluid spread across the pastures and farms. The regulations placed on HDD contractors for the use and disposal of this material vary from state to state and area to area but are excessively restrictive.

HDD itself is used to protect the environment. The process will not be successful without removing enough formation to allow the line to be placed in the remaining hole. This cannot be accomplished without the use of drilling fluid. The inadvertent seepage of this fluid to various spots at the surface or even into the river is not an environmental catastrophe and shouldn’t be treated as such. Everyone agrees the fluid should be contained and cleaned before the contractor leaves the site. In almost every case, stopping to clean, as opposed to continuing the drill and cleaning after, will increase the environmental exposure. A fact usually ignored is that once the drill is complete, the drilling fluid is allowed to remain in the hole, obviously because it creates no harm.

The expansion of HDD is creating a below ground labyrinth. Because the worst case scenario involves a driller hitting an existing underground pipeline, the most important environmental aspect of HDD is accuracy. HDD contractors have the ability to know the exact position of the drill bit at all times. In fact, this tracking ability is what allowed HDD to expand from remote to congested areas. This precision allows better use of existing right-of-ways. Pipelines and utilities can service more people while disrupting less land. Although HDD contractors have the ability to know the precise location of the drill head at all times, a high percentage of today’s engineering firms and environmentalists are unaware or misinformed of just how the guidance system works. Through ignorance or more sinister reasons, they allow and sometimes dictate contractors use less accurate systems.

When it comes to steering tools and guidance systems, there is nothing more accurate than direct current surface tracking, yet HDD consultants routinely recommend other less reliable methods. This trend has resulted is an increase in re-drills and HDD related court cases. Because communications between contractors and owners is discouraged, most are unaware steering system recommendations are being made by those who haven’t performed the research and due diligence required. When the line is installed improperly, the person or firm who wrote the specs, nor the environmentalist, will accept responsibility. The cost of the re-drill falls directly on the owner and/or HDD contractor.

Without understanding how steering and tracking systems work, environmentalist are restricting access to areas and limiting the contractor’s ability to properly set up and verify the underground movement of the drill head. The environmental damage of a track hoe driven to the river’s edge is in the short-term minimal at worst and long-term non-existent. The environmental impact of a line being in the wrong spot or struck by another contractor is extensive and in some cases permanent. By understanding how steering systems work and making sure they are used in the most accurate manner possible, environmentalist can do far more to protect the environment than limiting a contractors access; especially when the local hunters and four wheelers have unabated access to the same land.

HDD’s contribution to the environmental movement was as instantaneous as it was far reaching. The utilization of HDD has contributed to the reclamation and preservation of thousand of ecologically sensitive acres while allowing a more efficient use of natural resources. The conversion of coal power plants to clean burning natural gas without disrupting wetlands and wildlife is only a sample of these extensive benefits.

Extraordinary environmental benefits have resulted in a world-wide acceptance of HDD while, at the same time, created a false level of complacency in regards to the actual work performed. Current environmentalists are failing to utilize HDD to its fullest extent. This negative trend is slowly being reversed with environmentalist again taking charge by educating themselves and working directly with good HDD contractors. The greater benefit can continue to expand if project environmentalist demand that HDD projects be properly designed, drilled efficiently and accurately. In order to accomplish maximum environmental influence every party involved must recognize that HDD is the best environmental weapon they have.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John English is the president of Horizontal Technology Inc.. He is a 32-year veteran of the rotary drilling tool business and has spent the last 19 years in the HDD industry. Among his list of accomplishments are building the first HDD designed hole openers along with the adjustable lo-torque rock reamer. He can be reached at (888)556-5511, jenglish@horizontaltech.com

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