Microtunneling Professionals Receive Industry Awards

Four individuals were honored for their contributions to the industry on Feb. 11 in Boulder, Colorado, as they were given the Microtunneling Achievement Award for Microtunneling Excellence. Grahame Turnbull (consultant/JR Cruz), Troy Stokes (Akkerman), Julian O’Connell (Herrenknecht) and Dan Schitea (Vadnais Trenchless) were formally recognized at the Banquet Dinner as part of the 23rd annual Microtunneling Short Course.

The awards were established by Microtunneling Short Course organizers Tim Coss, Microtunneling Inc., and Levent Ozdemir, Ozdemir Engineering, to recognize the individuals and companies that have worked toward successfully completing complicated projects and advancing the industry.

In the following space, we take a look back at the careers of these men, their experiences and where they see the market heading.

 Grahame Turnbull


Grahame Turnbull (left) receives the Microtunneling Achievement Award from Tim Coss.

A native of the United Kingdom, Turnbull spent 10 years in the British Army before setting out on his career in the private sector in 1989. He had mechanical background with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers while in the Army, and put his training to good use when he joined Sillars Building and Civil Engineers, based in Northeast England, upon the end of his military commitment.

Sillars had purchased a Decon RVS 250 – one of the first microtunneling systems to cross the Channel (it would have had to come by boat – the opening of the Chunnel was still a few years away). Turnbull worked for a few other contractors, including Hartlepool, J.F. Donelon, and A.E. Yates, before making a huge career change. In 1995, Turnbull took on the position of Technical Service Manager for microtunneling machine manufacturer Soltau. Not only did he leave world of contracting, but his new role at Soltau brought him to the United States, where he has lived ever since.

“My time with Soltau was an enjoyable period of my career,” Turnbull said. “It was a big change in coming to the United States, and technology was still fairly new then – it was really cutting-edge stuff. Because of my role with the company, I was able to get involved on some really interesting projects.”

Turnbull spent seven years with Soltau, before leaving in 2002 to join Affholder. Turnbull spent three years at Affholder, seven with Bradshaw Construction, and three years with The Robbins Company before setting out on his own as a consultant in June 2015. Currently, Turnbull is working with JR Cruz on projects in the New York metropolitan area.

While working for Affholder, Turnbull specifically recalls one project – a lake tap in Summerville, West Virginia – that was a particular challenge. “The project was a raw water intake that was designed as two microtunnels, one on top of the other, bored from a drilled shaft 110 ft into the rock. The rock was portrayed as sandstone in the range of 12,000 to 14,000 psi but it ended up being quartzite in the range of 30,000 to 42,000 psi. We ended up completing that project by drill-and-blast. The rock was too hard to cut.”

Turnbull says the technology has come a long way since he first got involved in the business. “Back when I first started out there were limitations with a number of things,” he said. “The machines were all auger driven, which had its limitations. When slurry microtunneling was introduced it revolutionized the distances you could go and the materials you could deal with. Probably the biggest development was in the guidance systems and automation. The first machine I worked on had a control panel that was just a bank of numbers – it was kind of scary to look at when you first saw it. Nowadays operating the machine is like playing videogame.”

While the microtunneling market has grown in the United States, it has yet to achieve the level of popularity that it has in Europe and elsewhere. “It is a slow growth area here,” he said. “In my experience in other parts of the world, including South America, the Middle East, Far East and Europe, is that microtunneling is everywhere. You don’t even get off the airport property and you will see a microtunneling machine working. It is very widely used. But it is still very much a specialty here in the United States for whatever reason. I don’t think it is utilized to its full potential.”

The recent completion of curved drives here in the United States has begun to open some doors for microtunneling here, he said. “The rest of the world has been doing some curved drives and compound curves very successfully, and they are starting to catch on here. Of course there is an added element of risk, but it is just a matter of taking on the level of risk you are comfortable with. The sophistication of the guidance systems and the equipment itself has allowed these types of projects to be completed successfully and it is quite encouraging that a lot of the engineering firms are recognizing this capability.”

Julian O’Connell


Julian O’Connell (left) receives the Microtunneling Achievement Award from Tim Coss.

Like Turnbull, O’Connell got his start in the tunneling market in the United Kingdom. The son of a tunneler, O’Connell has spent practically his entire lifetime underground. “Ever since I was about 5 or 6 years old, I remember visiting some of the tunneling jobsites with my father,” he said.

It is no surprise then that O’Connell went on the study civil engineering before entering the tunneling market on his own. Starting off as a junior site engineer, O’Connell hit the ground running on projects that include pipe jacking, slurry shield tunneling, compressed air tunneling, hand mining and roadheader tunneling, in addition to shaft construction, while working for companies including Costain Civil Engineering, J.F. Donelon and J. Gallagher London.

In 1995, he made the leap from the United Kingdom to South America. Working for Japan-based Iseki Inc., one of the pioneering MTBM manufacturers operating in the United States, O’Connell left the United Kingdom to work as a project manager in Chile. Surprisingly, with all the different excavation techniques and machinery he was involved with in England, O’Connell had not been involved with a conventional microtunneling project before joining Iseki.

From Chile, O’Connell went to work on a project in Barbados, which was in the midst of a major infrastructure upgrade program. In total, O’Connell was involved with companies (Iseki, Why Dig Technologies and Soares Da Costa) that completed more than 6 km of microtunneling and 18 miles of open-cut, along with the construction of more than 50 shafts.

The next step for O’Connell was heading to the mainland to join James W. Fowler Co., where he helped the company launch its tunneling division in 2002, beginning with the challenging Spanaway Loop Bypass Interceptor project near Seattle. That project included high groundwater and mixed face conditions that included up to 60,000 psi cobbles. After working on several other projects on the West Coast and Midwest, O’Connell joined Herrenknecht in 2007 where he works as Area Manager for North America and the Caribbean.

So what is it about the industry that keeps him motivated? “With tunneling and microtunneling, there is never a dull day,” O’Connell said. “There is always a problem to solve that requires a different technical solution, and you then you need the teamwork to get the project done. It is just a very interesting business.”

For O’Connell, the biggest change in the technology is not in the machines themselves, but the guidance systems. “If you look at a Herrenknecht AVN today vs. 20 years ago, you have some things like face access, but the basic principles are the same; the improvements over time have been more in the way of making the machines more reliable and more robust,” he said. “The biggest jump in technology has been the navigation systems. The gyro systems have made it a lot easier to negotiate curved projects. We used to pipe jack around 500 m radius curves over a 1,600-ft drive, and that meant having to survey the drive once or twice a shift.”

O’Connell says his background as a junior-level engineer was an important part in his professional development. “In my early days I was fortunate to be involved on different types of equipment and different tunneling and shaft sinking techniques,” he said. “When you are in the field, you can see firsthand what can go wrong and the ways to do it right. I would spend maybe 10 hours in the field and an hour or two in the office after the shift, and that was a really good way to learn. There are certain things that can only be learned in the field.”

As far as the future of microtunneling in North America, O’Connell sees growth potential. “I don’t think the United States has realized the full potential of microtunneling,” he said. “There are still places that have no interest in it. And, we are seeing a lot of growth with our DirectPipe microtunneling system that is expanding the use of the technology beyond the typical municipal sewer projects. But there have been some positive developments. Ten years ago I think North America lagged behind Europe and the rest of the world in terms of using the technology to its fullest extent, but now I would say they are pretty much at the same level.”

Dan Schitea


Dan Schitea (left) receives the Microtunneling Achievement Award from Tim Coss.

Like some of the other Microtunneling Achievement Award winners, Dan Schitea’s entry into the microtunneling market was circuitous. After studying architecture for four years at Cal Poly, he realized that a job that required him to be cooped up indoors was probably not what he wanted to do, so he changed his major and earned a degree in construction management.

His first job involved working for a civil construction company building wastewater treatment plants, but when an opportunity to work for Vadnais Trenchless Services arose in 1997, Schitea took advantage, launching himself into the microtunneling market where he has been involved ever since.

Coincidently, his first assignment was a project engineer on a large microtunneling job in downtown Los Angeles, a project where he first met industry people including Troy Stokes and Grahame Turnbull.

“I knew nothing about microtunneling back in 1997,” Schitea recalled. “However, I really enjoyed the challenge associated with this new type of construction. From that point on I have been involved with microtunneling, overseeing the installation of nearly 200,000 lf of microtunneled pipelines.”

Schitea says that daily challenges and unique problems associated with the work are what draws him to the field. “I enjoy the challenges that come with microtunneling,” he said. “Every project is different and every day within each of those projects presents a new set of challenges.  Microtunneling is not easy.  It takes a certain type of personality to succeed, and I am proud to say that I’ve been able to develop my career within the industry.  I also find it rewarding to know that each of our completed projects have delivered significant benefits to society.  By providing new utilities without disruption to the environment and the public, microtunneling is one of the least obtrusive construction methods out there.”

Schitea said that he remembers each project that he has been involved with, but two stand out above the others. “I can remember every project we have done as if it were yesterday.  They are all so memorable for a variety of different reasons.  But, there are two projects in particular that are very memorable.  In 1999, the Bajamont Way Membrane Plant in Carmichael, California, was a project that consisted of several deep shafts and three separate microtunnels well beneath the American River.  It was the first project where I had constructed sunken concrete caissons and drilled CMP shafts.  The other was the UNWI Section 9 project in Citrus Heights, California, built from 2007 to 2009. This project consisted of 27,431 lf of microtunneling over 40 separate drives.  I will never forget the extensive planning, multiple headings and several obstacles that were overcome while working with a top-notch project team.”

The biggest changes to the microtunneling market that Schitea sees are those related to spoils separation. “Back when I started, the separation process was relatively crude,” he said. “We were using skip tanks, settling ponds, direct discharge of the drilling fluids, etc.  We were just starting to get mechanical separation equipment from the oilfield industry at that time and we could see the benefits of those devices right away.  As time went on, environmental restrictions got tougher and machinery became more efficient.  Today, the separation process is just as important, if not more so, than the actual mining of the tunnel.”

Schitea is bullish about the future of microtunneling in the United States. “Now that the ‘Great Recession’ is behind us, and utility operators are starting to be able to invest in their infrastructures again, I see a very bright future,” he said. “We are starting to see new utilities and clients, both public and private, begin to show a real interest in the technology.”

For the growth to occur, however, there need to be some changes. “The key to sustaining this growth is to have all parties – owners, engineers, contractors and manufacturers – be a lot more realistic about the capabilities,” Schitea said. “The industry continues to be overly optimistic about what can be achieved, how quickly it can be achieved and what the costs should be.  Further, project owners continue to provide smaller footprints with which contractors are expected to set up and operate. I would like to see a much more collaborative effort between contractors and consulting engineers during the design phase which would result in realistic expectations.”

Asked for his advice in achieving a successful project, Schitea’s response was: “Proper project planning! The success of any microtunnel project depends on how much effort you put into the project before you begin the actual construction work. First, you must always keep your equipment fleet in proper working order. In this industry you cannot afford to have preventable equipment failures in the middle of a drive. Next, a proper analysis and understanding of the ground conditions is a must. From there, appropriate allocation of the correct equipment and crew suited for those conditions. Finally, maintain a positive attitude and focus on successful completions of each tunnel reach.”

Troy Stokes


Troy Stokes (left) receives the Microtunneling Achievement Award from Tim Coss.

Born and raised in Florida, Stokes has been immersed in the construction industry since Day 1. With his father working in construction, Stokes would often find himself at jobsites. “I have always been fascinated with construction,” he said. “I could drive a bull-dozer before I could drive a car, and I always knew that I wanted to do that type of work as a career.”

Although his father was involved in vertical and development construction projects, Stokes migrated toward the utility sector, where cut-and-cover pipeline projects were prevalent at a time when trenchless was beginning to make inroads in the United States. Stokes’ introduction to trenchless came through a family friend who was working with Soltau Microtunneling as the German company was establishing a presence in the United States. “They were looking for someone to handle logistics, make sure equipment was where it needed to be and make sure the pits were dug – basically getting projects off the ground and seeing them through,” Stokes recalled. “Before I knew it, the company took off and I was helping build projects all over the country.”

In the early days, Soltau was the market leader in the U.S. microtunneling market. However, Soltau went through a transition — company founder Gerd Soluta sold the company in 2000, and passed away suddenly a few years later – and Stokes decided to join Akkerman Inc. in a similar role.

“I had known Maynard Akkerman since I first got involved in the trenchless market. I would see him on various jobs and came across a nice guy. It was also impressive to see him out in the field; you would never see company owners out on the jobsite,” Stokes said. “At first I was reluctant to leave Soltau, but the more I knew about Akkerman Inc. the more I liked. They were a family company and not a big conglomerate, and all they did was trenchless, which meant they had to do it well or they wouldn’t survive. I also liked the fact that they surrounded themselves with technical people, not slick salesmen.”

On the technology side, Stokes sees electronics and soil separation equipment as two aspects of the market that have changed the most. “Some of the first changes to come along were PLCs,” he said. “With PLCs, the operator and ultimately the owner had data available that allowed you to really understand and control what was going on. Not too long after that, digital guidance systems starting becoming common, which has taken the industry into a whole other level with how far you can go and what you can do with drives, in particular curved tunnels.”

In the early days, slurry separation technology involved simply using a screen. “And that was a step up from when we first started,” Stokes said. “In those days, we would simply pipe the returns into a tank and get new water when the tank filled up. We started improving the process little by little, and then brought in some oilfield technology like shakers and centrifuges.”

Of his time in the market, Stokes recalls a project for the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) in Kona, Hawaii, as his most memorable. The project involved driving twin 1,040-ft intake pipelines 80 ft under the Pacific Ocean, but was fraught with challenges; the seabed geology has treacherous lava holes, and, at the surface, wave action nearly shut the site down. It was also the first U.S. project to have an underwater recovery of a microtunneling machine.

“No one had ever done anything like that before,” Stokes said. “We were out there pretty much on our own facing huge hurdles, including bad ground conditions and bad weather. It was pretty amazing that we were able to overcome all the obstacles and get the project completed.”

Asked what he thinks is the most important aspect in completing a project successfully, Stokes answer was simple: Planning. “The No. 1 key with microtunneling – anything else for that matter – is preparation. Projects don’t always go as planned. Things happen fast and at the most inopportune times, but when you are prepared for that it tends to lessen the severity of the impact. Preparation can include having spares on site and developing contingency plans. Also, geotechnical information is crucial. When you know what you are up against you can make sure you have the right machine and the right cutters, for example. Any geotechnical work you can do upfront is going to pay you back tenfold.”


Microtunneling Achievement Award Winners

Past winners of the Microtunneling Achievement Award:

  • Northwest Boring (2002)
  • Franco Coluccio, Frank Coluccio Construction Co. (2004)
  • Glenn Boyce, Jacobs Associates (2006)
  • James Kwong, Yogi Kwong Engineers (2007, 2013)
  • Stefan Trumpi-Althaus, Jack Control Inc. (2008)
  • Matt Roberts, Kiewit (2009)
  • Dennis Molvik, Northwest Boring (2011)
  • Gary Huber, Permalok (2012)
  • Rick Turkopp, Hobas (2012)
  • James W. Fowler Co. (2014)
  • Rene Inosanto, Frank Coluccio Construction Co. (2015)
  • Greg Raines, MWH (2015)
  • John Grennan, Ward and Burke (2015)
  • Julian O’Connell, Herrenknecht (2016)
  • Dan Schitea, Vadnais Trenchless Services (2016)
  • Troy Stokes, Akkerman Inc. (2016)
  • Grahame Turnbull, Consultant/JR Cruz (2016)


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