Sustained Outrage

Gas Line Explosion

This image provided by the West Virginia State Police shows a fireball erupting across Interstate 77 from a gas line explosion in Sissonville, W. Va.,Tuesday Dec. 11, 2012.   (AP Photo/West Virginia State Police)

We haven’t told you much lately about the commission put together by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to study the safety and health problems that have come with the boom in natural gas production in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale region.

Readers may recall that Gov. Tomblin called for a closer examination of the issue as part of his 2015 State of the State speech a year ago:

For generations, West Virginia has been one of our nation’s leading energy producing states. 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. That’s why I am requesting a study to determine how we can best protect workers at natural gas operations. We must ensure our workers have the proper training and skills to do their jobs in the most effective way possible and return home safely. Workforce safety must be the expectation for businesses operating in West Virginia, not an afterthought.

We reported on the commission’s first meeting back in August, but haven’t checked back in with them since (largely because of the flurry of activity covering the Don Blankenship trial).

Under the governor’s executive order, the commission was to “prepare and issue a final report” by Nov. 16, 2015. We haven’t seen a final report yet. Maybe we’ll hear something tomorrow night from the governor, but at the least, I’m told that the final report should be ready later this week.

Until then, what we do have are the minutes of the commission’s last meeting on Nov. 12, which include a summary of the panel’s recommendations to the governor. The recommendations focus first on issues related to emergency response when incidents occur at oil and gas operations. For example, the commission recommended:

— The governor’s office should develop legislation to require that drilling and pipeline construction activities are subject to the state’s 15-minute notification law (W.Va. Code 15-5B-3a(b)(1)). Provisions may apply to fires, explosions, and similar emergency events (confirmed emergencies) at drilling and pipeline construction sites (with greater than 3-inch lines). Provisions also should consider situations when gaps in communications present a challenge to meet the notification time limit.

Under the direction of the governor’s office, the state should establish a database to track incidents and accidents at an associated with natural gas and hazardous liquid drilling and pipeline sites statewide. The state will monitor the database to look for trends that might require additional efforts to mitigate future issues. The W.Va. Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (WVDHSEM) also should map out, review, and affirm “natural gas and hazardous liquid incident” notification/communications protocols within state government.

The West Virginia Fire Marshal will conduct an evaluation to assess the need (current and future) for fire/emergency responder training and equipment. Presently, county fire/emergency responders benefit from several sources, including voluntary support from oil and natural gas companies. Consideration of any new fee related to “fire service” for emergency responders should be done prodently on a case-by-case basis at the local level.

The recommendations are also big on “best practices” and on improving worker training:

WVDEP will oversee development of best practices, particularly for horizontal well activities, for the monitoring of natural gas, hydrocarbon vapors and other sources using properly calibrated equipment (gas monitors).

— The West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) will examine the development of recommendations on truck tracking technologies and proper training related to the delivery of refined, highly flammable liquids to rural sites that are unmanned.

WVDOT will oversee continual safety training and compliance with motor vehicle laws that focus on the use of seat belts and to refrain from distracted driving.

Commissioners don’t appear to have recommended any new laws, rules or regulations that would govern safety at oil and gas operations. But they did slip this interesting proposal into their list for the governor:

— The commission recommends that the governor should give consideration to legislation that would create a self-critical analysis privilege to encourage the state oil and natural gas industry to conduct meaningful internal safety reviews, both ongoing and post-incident. A significant deterrent to such in-depth analysis is the reality that they (e.g., communications, written reports or analysis) can be misconstrued and/or otherwise used against a company in litigation. Creating a self-critical analysis privilege, like the privilege that exists presently under West Virginia law for health care peer review, would reduce these concerns and incentivize the industry to monitor its safety efforts and conduct detailed investigations regarding any safety-related incidents, which will promote worker health and compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements.