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Mission possible: complex gas pipe repair safely complete

In a busy, historic town usually filled with active citizens, near a normally bustling middle school, a large park and the East Branch of the Rahway River, PSE&G gas crews worked for five months in 2020 to get massive underground pipes lined in order to repair several gas leaks. As challenging and potentially dangerous as the work was, the fact that the school was in “virtual learning” mode helped create better working conditions for the project team.

“The construction site was very close to the school’s exit, which is normally used by hundreds of students,” said Tom Jahnke, Orange Gas senior distribution supervisor and project co-lead. “These projects always create ‘firsts,’ and getting this project safely completed in the middle of downtown South Orange was a challenge.”

The school’s closure meant less planning for an already complicated and fast-tracked process involving 36” and 30” diameter pipes, the river branch and other construction in the area off of South Orange Avenue.

Typically, when working on such large pipelines work crews need to dig about 15 feet into the ground; because of the river, the crews had to dig to a depth of 30 feet in extremely tight conditions. They also had to find creative solutions to best repair the old “homemade” system they found, including developing a special plug designed by PSE&G Distribution Technical Leader George Ragula, who recently retired.

About 30 people, including members of UA Local 855 and contractors, worked on the project that completed on Oct. 1.

“I’m proudest of the seamless integration of all the aspects of our project, while working in conjunction with water and demolition projects in the area,” said Ed Bittner, Gas System Modernization senior distribution supervisor and project co-lead. “Also, the Orange District workforce and supervision – their dedication, willingness to adapt and focus on safety is second to none, which made coordination easier.”

Gas Operations District Manager J. Douglas Todd said he’s “so impressed by the teamwork and leadership.” He said that even though PSE&G has lined several large gas mains before, this project was “riddled with challenges” but the team overcame them and did an “awesome job.”

“From the depth of main, to inoperable 36” valves that needed replacing, to excavations with multiple gas mains and additional utilities involved with the work, it didn’t matter what obstacle was uncovered the team would take a step back, collaborate with each other, consult with our technical support team and create ‘Plan B,’” Todd said. “They would share the new plans with our Planning and Design team, gain approval and move forward. The employees doing the work have tremendous respect and trust in Tom and Ed. Tom and Ed oversaw the entire project on the ground, they would pause before each new task, tailboard with the crews, identify all hazards and ensure no one was in the line of fire. The crews listened closely to all direction, learned new techniques and completed the project ahead of schedule with zero safety issues.”

For Jahnke, his proud moment came on a Saturday while watching a 30,000-pound 36” gear plug valve loaded by crane safely into the ground.

“We have a bunch of good guys here, and I can’t say enough about them,” Jahnke said. “They get things done.”

Lauren Ugorji, Lead Writer - PSE&G

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