ELKO - Only a dozen miles of El Paso Corp.'s Ruby Pipeline are yet to be completed along the 680-mile route, and the Ruby compressor station at Elko is close to the finish line.
"On the whole pipeline there are just 12 and a half miles to be welded up," Thomas Gimse, Elko-based manager of Ruby Pipeline operations from Kemmerer, Wyo., to Malin, Ore., said Monday. "All of the pipeline is in the ground in Elko County, but we have tie-ins that have to be made."
He said that by the end of this week he expects the pipeline to carry natural gas from Wyoming to the Elko station as testing continues segment by segment.
"The pipeline now is pressurized with gas from Wyoming to Wells," he said.
El Paso Corp. spokesman Richard Wheatley said Monday the company expects to complete the Ruby Pipeline next month, but there isn't a final date.
"We're moving forward. Project completion is scheduled for July," he said.
Meanwhile, the workforce in Elko County has dropped drastically from the heyday of the construction project that started in late July 2010 and filled motels.
"There were probably 3,000 workers just in Elko County," Gimse said. "So, we're going from 3,000 down to eight."
The eight he was talking about are the contractors completing dirt work and buildings at the compressor station roughly 32 miles north of Elko, "and they'll be done by the middle of July."
El Paso Corp. estimated last year that the project would employ nearly 5,000 people all along the route. Wheatley said Monday evening the estimated cost is roughly $3.55 billion.
The $55 million Wieland Flat station will have seven employees, and they will relocate from a temporary office in Elko to the new office building on site.
"We abandoned all the other temporary offices except Elko," Gimse said, explaining that the Elko station is taking longer because it is the biggest.
He transferred from Houston, and he said one worker is local and others are from New York and Arizona.
"My goal was to get qualified, experienced people to maintain the reliability of service. They came from the El Paso pipeline group," Gimse said.
Gimse said the compressor station at Kemmerer, Wyo., will have four permanent employees, and the one near Winnemucca will have two employees, while the station at Park Valley, Utah, will have two employees. The end station at Malin will have one person.
"What distinguishes this pipeline is the amount of automation," he said.
People in a control room in Colorado Springs, Colo., can control the pipeline operation, which will be ongoing 24 hours a day, seven days a week all year, Gimse said. There also will be controls at the Elko County station, and a capability to interface with the equipment.
The station north of Elko has two Solar Titan turbine units that boost the pressure of the gas flowing through the pipeline.
The site also includes a shop, an auxiliary building with a generator in case of a power outage and a parts warehouse.
The pipeline has to pass a series of tests in the segments before going into service.
"First, we do the hydro test," Gimse said, which is a pressure test with water. Then, a geometric pig, which is basically a tool pushed through the line, will check for deformities.
"We have smart and dumb pigs," he said. The smart ones are like the geometric pig, while the dumb ones are used for cleaning.
Once the geometric pig finishes, the pipe is tied together so there is a continuous string of pipe to purge.
"We purge the pipe 80 to 100 miles a time," he said, using methane to push all the air out of the line.
Along with the compressor stations, the Ruby Pipeline also has mainline valves roughly every 18 miles, and these are above ground, as are the pig launchers and receivers. These are bigger pipes so the pigs can be put into the system.
"There are eight launchers; four at the compressor stations and four others," Gimse said.
The maintenance and repairs can be done in segments, and he said the pipeline will be continuously operating.
"We hope we never shut down," he said.
While the pipeline testing continues, there also is work yet to be done on reclamation of the stretches of the pipeline route to be seeded, using top soil saved during the laying of the 42-inch pipe.
"The cleanup and seeding will continue after the gas is in the pipeline," Gimse said.
Much of the construction happened in bad weather because of permit delays, and portions of the pipeline had be put on hold for a number of weeks because of sage grouse mating season.
"We were up to our knees in mud a couple of days, then there was dust and then we were back in mud," Gimse said.
He also said the lone fatality on the project in December 2010 was tragic. There also was a truck accident in Elko County that injured seven workers in October 2010.
Gimse said, however, that the size of the project and the number of manhours involved, he thought the work was "done very safely in inclement weather."
Charles C. Kuhn, 62, of Dresden, Ohio, was crushed under a section of pipe in Elko County on Dec. 7.
"No one wants to see an accident, especially a fatality, but overall, we will be under the average," Gimse said.