Sustained Outrage

Will lawmakers get serious about gas industry safety?

Well Explosion

Fire crews from Marshall County battle a gas well fire in  Moundsville, WV, Monday June 7, 2010. The explosion and resulting fire sent seven people to area hospitals including three workers who were flown to a Pittbsurgh burn center. (AP Photo/The News-Register, Kef Howard)

A committee of West Virginia lawmakers spent some time over the last two days talking about a growing, but not very well publicized, issue facing the state as the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom continues. We’ve written about it before:

As West Virginia’s natural gas industry booms, more workers are paying the price as deaths on the job are increasing, according to new federal government data.

Thirteen workers in the state’s oil and gas industry died during the five-year period between 2008 and 2012, according to the data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than double the five workers who died in the industry during the previous five-year period, between 2004 and 2008, according to the bureau.

The increase in worker deaths came as natural gas production in West Virginia — fueled by the rush to tap into the Marcellus Shale reserves — also more than doubled, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

During an initial meeting on Tuesday, James Martin, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas, told the Joint Committee and Labor and Worker Safety Issues that, despite a mandate in the 2011 National Gas Horizontal Well Control Act for operators to submit safety plans to DEP, state officials leave worker safety mostly up to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

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

Charleston lawyer Tammy Bowles-Raines, testifying for the West Virginia Association for Justice, told the committee that injuries and deaths from being struck by moving equipment, explosions, and transportation accidents are on the rise in the state’s Marcellus boom:

Worker safety in the oil and gas industry is a growing concern.

Here’s what Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Gas Association said in response:

We’ve had some accidents and unfortunately there have been some people hurt and a number have lost their lives. But we’re trying to come up with best management practices to not have these accidents. We’re changing and we’re learning as we go. It’s a process that has evolved and will continue to evolve.

During the meeting, Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, also asked again for data from the state — mandated to be collected by that same 2011 drilling law — about how many West Virginia residents are getting the jobs created by the Marcellus boom:

We have asked for that information and I believe we have a right to know if that information the way we required it is being collected.  I have asked for this more than one time and I have not received it.

Of course, as we’ve reported before here, the state has never really designed a study that would fully answer Delegate Poore’s question.