FAIRMONT, W.Va. -- Communities in Northern West Virginia are facing "an invasion" of heavy truck traffic related to the boom on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, a local sheriff told a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday.Marshall County Sheriff John Gruzinskas described the situation in his area during a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation."We were never prepared for the onslaught of heavy trucks that would monopolize our roads, damage our property, and destroy our roads," Gruzinskas told lawmakers. "The drivers are not from here so they do not care what happens as a result of their reckless operations."Gruzinskas testified here at a hearing put together by Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to focus on the infrastructure needs of the drilling industry and potential downstream businesses such as a much-touted ethane cracker chemical-processing facility.Witnesses were heavily stacked toward industry officials and boosters from within government. Except for Gruzinskas, no local citizens were asked to testify about how the boom is affecting their communities.In West Virginia and some surrounding states, business and political leaders are pushing hard to encourage continued growth in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation. The drive is heating up, as states race each other to offer economic incentives to lure another "cracker" plant like the one Shell Chemical is considering in western Pennsylvania.Industry supporters say little about recent scientific papers that question whether natural gas really provides improvements in terms of greenhouse emissions or concerns that the gas boom diverts resources and attention from developing cleaner, renewable energy sources. And local residents in gas-producing areas remain concerned that even a new West Virginia law passed in December does not provide them enough protections from potential drilling damage to their property, local roads and environment.Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, said little attention is given to the issue of companies bringing in out-of-state workers to fill jobs created by the drilling boom."When a plant closes and we lose hundreds of jobs, there is a huge uproar, and rightfully so," White said. "Yet, when companies bring in out-of-area workers and we lose hundreds of local jobs, there is little outcry."White added, "Unfortunately, too many companies are importing workers and too many local businesses are not given a chance to bid projects. We need to encourage all companies to hire locally."Rockefeller pressed Randy Albert, chief operating officer for CONSOL Energy's gas operations, about why the industry doesn't improve trucking safety by hiring more West Virginia drivers who know the local roads.Albert said that CONSOL tries to employ West Virginians, but added, "I can't mandate to my subcontractors that they hire West Virginians."Rockefeller shot back, "You know, I think you can. And I think most of them aren't West Virginians. I would think that you probably could do that."On the roads issue, state Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said "most of the damage" to roads from the drilling boom is being repaired by contractors hired and paid by gas operators. Under a state policy worked out with the industry, operators spent more than $20 million on repairs last year alone, Mattox said."Most repair projects have begun within a couple of days, if not the same day as the damage occurs," Mattox said. "Many operators have contractors on 'stand by' contracts. Many operators are learning that preventative work done before starting the well construction is more economical and provides better relations with local citizens."
Scott Rotruck, a vice president of Chesapeake Energy, said during Wednesday's hearing that "enhanced infrastructure" -- including railroads, pipelines, and gas processing facilities -- "are essential for the development" of the shale-gas reserves like the Marcellus. He said that Chesapeake spent $61 million on Northern West Virginia road improvements in 2011, and plans to spend another $93 million this year."West Virginia's road system was not built to accommodate the large transportation demands of shale development, but the good news is the process, while initially intrusive and disruptive, as is the case with many economic development projects, will leave behind an enhanced system of roads for the benefit of local residents and the state coffers," Rotruck said.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.