Tomblin gas worker safety commission starts work

A commission appointed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to investigate worker safety and health problems in West Virginia’s natural gas business started its work Thursday with a series of presentations from federal and state officials who explained the roles various agencies play in overseeing the industry.

Tomblin kicked off the meeting with brief remarks in which he promoted continued growth in natural gas production, but said that “workplace safety must also be an expectation for businesses operating here.”

“Despite the efforts of some, I remain very confident that our state will continue to supply the nation’s energy needs well into the future,” the governor said.

Tomblin said, though, that he remains concerned that growth of gas drilling and associated activities, focused in the state’s Marcellus Shale region, brought with it an increase in workplace accidents in recent years.

Speakers at the first meeting of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Safety Commission included officials from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Public Service Commission and the state Department of Transportation. They explained how their separate agencies regulate different parts of the industry, from drilling new wells, monitoring actively producing operations, and keeping track of transmission and distribution pipelines across the state.

The 19-member commission reflects the complex web of gas production sites, processing facilities and transportation operations that is sprouting up as part of the natural gas industry’s growth, with members from each sector of the industry.

Last month, Tomblin named the commission’s members, including seven gas industry and two labor representatives, after announcing in his State of the State address in January that he would form the panel.

During Thursday’s meeting, Tomblin policy director Larry Malone, a former gas industry official who is leading the commission, presented some initial data collected by DEP which showed an up-and-down trends over recent years in the number of “incidents and accidents” at gas operations. But Malone and James Martin, director of the DEP Office of Oil and Gas, said that the data reflected only information that was reported to DEP or that the agency otherwise became aware of and should not be considered an all-inclusive list.

Richard Jeffrey, a compliance assistance specialist with OSHA, said that the gas industry in West Virginia had several good years with no workplace deaths, but then recorded eight fatalities between 2013 and this month. Still, Jeffrey said, OSHA inspectors have been finding fewer and fewer violations during workplace visits.

“I’m not here to say it’s good or bad, but it’s getting better,” Jeffrey said.

Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox used his presentation to the commission to tout a voluntary program through which gas companies contribute funds to help repair roads damaged by the heavy truck traffic needed for hydraulic fracturing operations.

But Mattox said he wasn’t aware of any state examination of workplace deaths involving vehicle accidents of natural gas workers, a common cause of fatalities in the industry.

“I’m not aware of anything that we have done,” Mattox said. “We have not that I know of.”

Malone said that the commission’s next meetings will be Aug. 26 in Fairmont and Sept. 16 in Wheeling. The Aug. 26 meeting will feature presentations by industry members of the commission about special safety and health programs in place at their own companies.

Tomblin ordered the commission to finalize a report to him by mid-November.

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

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