Tomblin calls for study of increased deaths from gas-drilling boom

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is calling for a study aimed at reversing the increase in workplace deaths that has accompanied the boom in natural gas drilling and production from the Marcellus Shale fields in Northern West Virginia.

The governor offered few details of the initiative, but announced the effort Wednesday evening as part of his annual State of the State address.

“We must ensure the safety of hardworking West Virginians at drilling sites, production facilities and pipelines across the state,” Tomblin said. “Workforce safety must be the expectation for businesses operating in West Virginia, not an afterthought.”

In 2013, seven oil and gas industry workers died on the job in West Virginia, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Figures for 2014 are not yet available, and the bureau’s 2013 numbers are still preliminary.

Between 2009 and 2013, as the industry boomed in the Marcellus region, 15 natural gas workers died on the job in West Virginia, according to the federal data. During the previous five-year period, from 2004 to 2008, three worked died in West Virginia’s oil and gas industry, according to the bureau.

Kenny Perdue, president of the state AFL-CIO, said that it’s clearly time for a closer examination of safety issues in the industry. Perdue noted that gas industry employees work in rugged terrain and around fast-moving equipment, conditions that present a myriad of safety challenges.

“There are a lot of opportunities to get hurt in that industry,” Perdue said. “We need to make sure we are doing all we can to make sure those workers do not get hurt.”

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said his group would cooperate with the governor’s proposal for a study, but that companies in industry already focus lots of effort on safety and health issues.

“Our industry is so safety minded, when you take a look top to bottom,” Burd said after the governor’s speech. “Most companies have programs that go beyond even what [the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration] requires.”

Chris Stadelman, Tomblin’s communications director, said after the speech that the administration would be putting together more details on the governor’s study in the coming weeks.

“It’s safe to say that a broad coalition will contribute to the discussion and the goal will be to define best practices that help keep workers safe as we continue to develop this valuable resource in West Virginia,” Stadelman said.

In his speech, Tomblin touted the passage during a December 2011 special session of a new state law to regulate the advances in horizontal drilling that have helped fuel the Marcellus boom, but did not note that the legislation included a mandate that oil and gas operators submit to the state Department of Environmental Protection plans “to address proper safety measures to be employed for the protection of persons on the site as well as the general public.”

During a legislative hearing in November, DEP oil and gas chief James Martin said that his office still leaves worker safety issues mostly up to federal OSHA inspectors.

“Our focus is on the environmental side of it, so that’s what we look to,” Martin said. “Obviously, there is overlap. The same issue could result in both safety and environmental concerns. But our focus is on the environment.”

Other states that are part of America’s energy boom have also seen increased workplace deaths. Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have seen increases in worker fatalities, according to federal data first reported on by the Houston Chronicle.

The Chronicle noted a decline in worker deaths in Wyoming, the only one of eight major energy producers to have “engaged in a sustained state-sponsored effort to reduce workplace fatalities.” Wyoming hired five new state-funded OSHA inspectors, employed a full-time epidemiologist to collect and study worker deaths, and set up safety groups to recommend more reforms, the Chronicle reported.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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