Tomblin forms group to study worker safety in gas boom

Seven months after calling for a study of worker health and safety issues related to West Virginia’s natural gas drilling industry, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has named a panel that will conduct that study.

Tomblin issued an executive order to form the West Virginia Commission on Oil and Gas Industry Safety, a 19-member group that includes four non-voting members from the Legislature, four voting members who are cabinet secretaries from the departments of Environmental Protection, Commerce, Transportation and Military Affairs and Public Safety, and a representative of the state Public Service Commission.

“As we continue to explore opportunities to diversify our state’s energy portfolio, we must ensure the safety of hardworking West Virginians at drilling sites, production facilities and pipelines across the state,” Tomblin said in a press release. “This Commission will help us determine how to best protect workers at natural gas operations while ensuring our workers have the proper training and skills to do their jobs in the safest, most effective way possible.”

The commission’s nine non-governmental members include seven industry representatives from companies including EQT, Antero Resources and Columbia Pipeline, and two labor representatives from the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Parkersburg-Marietta Construction Trades Education and Development Fund.

Chris Stadelman, communications director for Tomblin, said the administration is “comfortable with the makeup of the commission,” adding that the group’s industry representatives are from several different areas of expertise.

“Gov. Tomblin selected experts in a variety of fields including exploration, drilling, pipelines, safety, transportation and labor,” Stadelman said.

Stadeleman said the governor’s representative on the commission is expected to be Larry Malone, Tomblin’s director of policy and a former executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association.

In mid-January, Tomblin called for a study of oil and gas industry worker safety as part of his State of the State address.

“Workforce safety must be the expectation for businesses operating in West Virginia, not an afterthought,” the governor said at the time.

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 data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the previous five-year period, from 2004 to 2008, three workers died in West Virginia’s oil and gas industry, according to the bureau.

“In view of this increasing number and severity of personal injuries, it is appropriate to review and assess the effectiveness of the federal and state laws and regulations associated with workplace safety in the oil and gas industry in West Virginia,” the governor said in his executive order.

The commission was charged with reviewing existing rules from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and the West Virginia Office of Oil and Gas within DEP. It was also charged with examining industry “best practices”.

Recommendations in a final report due by Nov. 17 are to consider whether current requirements and programs are sufficient, if trade association “self-policing and regulating” is adequate, what sort of safety training should be implemented, and whether additional state oversight is necessary.

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

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