Lawmaker wants more answers on Marcellus shale worker safety issues

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As the prevalence of natural gas drilling grows in West Virginia some state lawmakers are taking a closer look at the safety of those working on the drilling pads in the Marcellus shale.

Several lawmakers raised concerns during an interim legislative committee meeting Wednesday on the safety standards for gas drilling. The industry is defending against critics who believe the standards are not nearly stringent enough and made comparisons to the coal industry.

Coal miners are required to have a 20 or 40-hour course depending on the level of work they’ll be doing on the surface or underground. They then must work as a “red hat” alongside an experienced miner until they are fully certified. Natural Gas Association Executive Director Corky DeMarco told the committee there is a similar requirement for drilling rig employees developed in cooperation with the industry and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“We entered into an agreement with OSHA on the safety protocol for the employees who work in this industry,” DeMarco said. “Depending on what you’re doing in this industry you are required to have OSHA eight hour or 30-hour training.”

The standard employee safety certification comes from the International Association of Drilling Contractors. DeMarco told lawmakers although the safety card isn’t a requirement for employment, most major companies will not hire anyone without the certification.

The lack of the full-fledged requirement bothered Del. Randy Smith of Preston County who works in the coal industry.

“It’s a concern to me because what I’m hearing in recent months is we’re (coal mines) over regulated and the gas industry is under regulated,” Smith said. “I’m hoping we can find a happy medium for both of them.”

Smith was most concerned about the availability of safety teams during a well site emergency. The most critical safety issue on a well pad is a fire. DeMarco said while they work with local first responders, fighting a well fire has to be done by professional teams. The specialized teams are few and far between.

“If you’ve got a well fire, you’ve got a completely different situation,” said DeMarco. “Just because of the nature of these fires, I don’t know that you could put these people with XYZ company and these other people with ABC company and all these folks come together to do this.”

Smith maintained the comparison to mine rescue teams which are always less than two hours away from any active mine. Mine rescue teams are regular coal miners who’ve been extensively trained and specialize in underground disasters.

DeMarco said it was hard to make the comparison because a mine explosion and a well fire were dramatically different.

“I don’t know where you would put that individual team or how you could pull them out of 40 different locations and put them in one,” DeMarco said. “I understand what you’re saying and yes, it would make sense, but I just don’t know how practically you could do that.”

“I would think it would be in your best interest to put together a specialty team to address some of these issues,” said Smith. “We do it in the coal industry, so don’t tell me it can’t be done or it’s not practical. I would hope you guys care enough you would want to do something like that for the safety of your workers.”

Smith warned the industry should start addressing some of the issues or the state will step in and become involved.

“I’ll be honest with you, if you guys don’t do something voluntarily we’re going to have to do something,” Smith told DeMarco. “We’re talking about workers’ safety here.”

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