R&M Through The Years: Supporting Development of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline

January 9, 2019

In celebration of R&M’s 50th anniversary, we are taking a look back at the projects over the last five decades that made R&M into the firm it is today. We start with a look at how R&M got its start – geotechnical investigation work on pipeline routes and design of the original haul road for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

The Beginning of it All

R&M has deep roots in the development of Alaska’s resources, beginning with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). In 1968, Ralph Migliaccio was a research geologist and associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. About that time, TAPS, the consortium now known as Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, consulted Migliaccio on certain geological points concerning the proposed oil pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez. It wasn’t long before TAPS began learning so heavily on Migliaccio’s service that he was forced to make a choice – either remain with the University or devote full-time to his consulting work. He chose the latter and formed R&M Geological Consultants as a one-man firm in 1969.

At the time, Jim Rooney was a civil engineer specializing in cold regions geotechnics, working for the State Department of Highways. Migliaccio invited Rooney to join him at R&M.

Pipeline Route Geotechnical Investigations

R&M was contracted in March 1969 to conduct the initial subsurface soils exploration program along the proposed alternate pipeline routes for TAPS. The broad objective of the project was to determine and make recommendations regarding the most feasible soil and geological conditions for the pipeline to follow from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. The proposed route extended from Livengood across the Yukon toward Bettles and then divided with one alternative going up the John River through Anaktuvuk Pass and a second alternative through Atigun Pass, which was ultimately selected as the preferred route.

The entire proposed alignment was subject to a drilling program, which involved drilling several hundred borings along the two alternative routes. The program identified soils within landforms, as well as evaluated permafrost conditions and other pertinent geotechnical considerations. Field work began in March 1969 and extended through June of that year.

Logistics for the study were difficult because of the route access limitations. All work was performed with helicopter support while drill rigs and equipment support facilities were towed by dozers or lighter track equipment. Initial access was obtained along the Hickel Highway, while all remaining work was done by following old miner’s trails. They were five exploration crews involved in the study, each headed by a geologist.

The program was subsequently extended for the remaining portion of the year to include exploration and drilling along the southern portion of the pipeline route, continuing from Livengood south through the Copper River basin. In fact, geotechnical exploration actually continued for a number of years even into the construction period.

Haul Road Design

That same year R&M performed engineering and related functions connected with the design, survey and construction supervision of the original 56 miles of the Alyeska Pipeline Haul Road, what is now known as the Dalton Highway. At this point, Jim Wellman and Malcolm Menzies were recruited to assist with this work. Jim and Malcolm moved to Livengood, establishing a tent camp with a trailer, and where they completed all surveying and design work just ahead of the contractor.

This particular section of the haul road, extending from the Elliott Highway near Livengood north to the Yukon River, followed a design-build approach that left no time for conventional design approaches. Project design was initiated in early June 1969, and construction engineering work was virtually completed in just over four months. The construction of the road was punched through to the Yukon just before Christmas of that year.

R&M’s involvement with the pipeline grew rapidly from this initial work, extending to detailed pipeline route geotechnical studies, construction zone and workpad design, erosion control, restoration design and numerous special studies. We will take a look at these various pipeline-related projects R&M completed during the 1970s in our next project post.