Natural gas driller gives inside look at seismic testing
A group of people in orange hard hats and safety vests stood on a muddy road in Plum on Wednesday afternoon watching a large, white truck.
After a minute, a platform situated under the truck, behind its large front wheels, lowered to the ground.
Once there, it sent a wave of vibrations into the earth that could be felt in one's feet.
"My toes tickle," someone said.
The truck, known as a vibroseis truck, is one piece of equipment Monroeville driller Huntley & Huntley Inc. is using to conduct seismic testing in Western Pennsylvania.
Such testing is often tied to oil and natural gas exploration.
Huntley & Huntley Inc. is working with Cougar Land Services and Geokinetics, both Texas-based, to conduct the seismic testing project.
It's taking place in Lower Burrell, Upper Burrell, Allegheny Township, Washington Township, Plum, Murrysville, Penn Hills, Penn Township, Monroeville and other municipalities.
It started in January and is expected to wrap up in April.
Seismic testing has been the topic of several Tribune-Review articles, so Huntley & Huntley Inc. invited the newspaper to a demonstration to see first hand what it entails. Reporters underwent a safety orientation, met with crew members and saw the tests in action.
Geokinetics is the company performing the testing, the majority of which is being be done by large vibroseis trucks.
How it works
Vibroseis trucks create vibrations in the ground that are recorded by small devices called geophones, which provide information about the geological conditions at a location. The devices are placed a few inches into the ground.
Todd Folckler, a geophysicist contracted by Geokinetics, said homeowners will be able to feel the vibrations from the vibroseis trucks, but the impact does not exceed vibrations that can do damage to any structures.
"It's absolutely safe," he said.
Another way Geokinetics is conducting testing is with small explosive charges, but those are only being done in areas the vibroseis trucks can't get to.
Folckler said vibroseis trucks are his preferred method of testing.
He said charges are more expensive and don't have the same noise-filtering capabilities. About 5,600 charges have been drilled 30 feet deep as part of the project, which encompasses 200 square miles.
"A vibrator gives me a better record, in general," he said.
The sound waves made by the charges also are recorded by geophones. Folckler said the best analogy he could make to describe them is "sonar."
"(A) destroyer sends out a 'ping' — you always see it in movies," he said. "That ping goes down, hits the submarine, it reflects off the submarine, comes back to the destroyer.
"They measure the time that that ping went, and that's how they determine how deep that submarine is."
Some residents have concerns
There has been some concern from residents of several communities regarding the testing, which officials said is safe.
Monroeville and Oakmont placed rules on the practice last year.
Some people have said workers from the companies have trespassed on their property. One of those is Monroeville resident Georgiana Woodhall, who lives along Route 130.
The most recent incident was in January, but she said they trespassed in June, too. She wrote Geokinetics a letter then and filed an incident report with the police last month when her cousin spotted a man who they claim was on Woodhall's property.
Doug Garrett, a project manager for Cougar Land Services, said the worker was on the road's right of way.
"In my system, her property, it's showing 'no permit.' So we don't go on it," he said.
Cougar Land Services was hired by Geokinetics to do permit work for the project.
Paul Burke, vice president and general counsel for Huntley & Huntley Inc. issued a statement regarding the alleged trespassing, which said, in part: "Recognizing the concerns of the property owner, technicians have avoided accessing the right of way in that areas since that time, and there are no plans to return for any reason."
Woodhall said Geokinetics violated a settlement agreement between it and Monroeville. The settlement stemmed from Monroeville's rules that were challenged in federal court in December and requires the company, in part, to notify residents 30 days before testing. Monroeville Solicitor Robert Wratcher said he and officials are trying to determine whether the agreement was violated.
Garrett said there are about 65,000 landowners living within the scope of the project, and his company works to make sure all the ones that require permits are permitted properly.
"Every permit out here has conditions and a stipulation list that we try to adhere to when we permit somebody," he said.
Sometimes, though, property lines provided by county records are not entirely accurate. That could lead to misunderstandings between property owners and companies doing the tests.
Garrett said that's why the company does advance notification of projects through municipalities.
It also reaches out to landowners by phone and with door hangers that include notice of testing and a phone number people can call with questions or concerns. That number is 1-800-481-5736.
"We try to communicate with everybody what's going on," he said.
He said most of the trespassing complaints from residents in the region have been about right-of-way roads, where seismic testing workers are allowed to go without notifying people.
Madasyn Czebiniak and Dillon Carr are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Czebiniak at 724-226-4702, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @maddyczebstrib. Reach Carr at 412-871-2325, email@example.com or via Twitter @dillonswriting.