West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant paid a visit Monday morning to the Wetzel County Commission, where conversation circulated around oil and gas drilling industry issues in Wetzel County.
Commissioners told the secretary that the oil and gas industry has caused a big change, with roads being the main problem. Commission President Don Mason speculated that Wetzel County was not prepared for the boom that the industry has caused. He agreed the drawback of the boom is the road issues, but stated, as a positive aspect, that the government is receiving more taxes and more business. He said that the topic of a future fund is good, but "I'd also think . . . let's not forget the citizens. More money has got to come back to these counties to take care of the roads." Mason added, "Let's not forget about Marshall, Wetzel, and Harrison counties . . . taking the brunt of this . . . the difficulties the citizens are suffering, and it's been like that from the very beginning."
Mason stated that some of the drilling companies have been very cooperative, such as Chesapeake. "Chesapeake has been a very good neighbor as far as fixing roads, and out into Route 89," he stated before adding, "Now on the other hand, some of the other drilling going on in the other part of the county . . ." Mason added that the citizens further out in the county have not experienced the same sort of treatment such as those who are interacting with Chesapeake.
Wetzel County Commission President Don Mason, right, discusses oil and gas issues with West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant Monday morning. (Photo by Lauren Riggs)
"So you all, as county commissioners, face both sides," Tennant stated.
"We aren't in the position to do much," Mason stated, "because we don't control the roads. The only thing we can do is lobby the state roads." Mason added that because of the way the truck drivers are abusing the roads and speeding on the roads, the commission was put in the position to put more money in the sheriff's department to pay overtime so that extra patrol could take place out on the affected roads.
"I'll give you some of the negatives," Mason added, "but there's positive things here too."
"Have you all been asked by any other counties, to help them in developing?" Tennant asked.
"We had one county," Commission Vice President Gorby responded.
"Monroe County," Mason clarified, "because they are concerned about their water situation. They came about two years ago and spent the whole morning talking to us." He added, "We've had other counties come in and actually visit well sites. We've had contacts from Ohio, Marietta division. They came up and talked to us a whole day."
"What kind of changes have you seen?" Tennant asked the commissioners. "You talked about wanting to be a bit more prepared. It seems like county officials didn't have as many opportunities to lead the forefront. It was the gas companies, because they probably knew more."
"We weren't informed of the negative impact, and the citizens weren't prepared for it," Wetzel County Assessor Scott Lemley stated. "We weren't educated enough. I think if the citizens knew more about what would happen with the heavy traffic on these secondary roads . . . I don't know if they would've been happier, but I think they would've been more prepared."
"Charleston wasn't prepared either," Commission President Mason noted. "I don't think Governor Tomblin realized what was going to happen, or I don't think they knew what was going to happen. I've been kind of disappointed. I'm surprised they haven't set up some sort of administrative office in Wheeling or Moundsville."
"I think that's interesting you say that," said Tennant." "because sometimes I feel like that too. We go around the state and may talk about we have a boom up here and we have coal fields down south, but this came to mind when you talked about the road problem: Do you work with the Division of Highways folks in Charleston, or do you go to the county Department of Highways or the district Department of Highways in hopes they will pass the message on?"
Commission Vice President Gorby stated that the commission talks to the county, as well as the District 6 County of Highways."
"Do you think there's that understanding in Charleston?" Tennant asked, in which the commissioners responded no.
"How much has Paul Mattox (West Virginia's Secretary of Transportation / Commissioner of Highways) been up here?" Tennant further questioned.
County Clerk Carol Haught responded that Mattox spoke with county officials for 15 or 20 minutes, in which he stated that he understood there were issues with the road Haught lived on. However, Haught added that people in her area, North Fork/Mobley, waited for four years for the road to be repaired.
Gorby asked Haught how much large truck traffic she saw on her roads five years ago.
"Mostly two trucks a day," she responded. "Now, we probably see hundreds of trucks daily, besides car traffic."
Tennant stated there was a piece of legislation that had been passed, in which there were "two things that happened." She stated one of those was "design to build, if that is the correct term." She further explained: "If you are going to have the company design it, they build it." Furthermore, "The other was using the public private partnership of building the roads, because who is causing your road to crumble? We know it's the gas company."
Tennant added that the money is not in the Department of Highway's budget. "They've been told in Charleston that XYZ company is responsible for all repairs on a road," said Tennant who further stated that all road repair and all maintenance has been forfeited to oil and gas companies.
"A lot of these people have subcontracted work," Commissioner Larry Lemon stated. "It seems like the head company doesn't know what the subcontractors are doing. The commission has taken the initiative to write to all these companies, to put them on alert." He added, "We've gotten some responses that they will attempt to do better, but time will tell, basically, whether that happens or not."
Tennant explained that as far as legislation goes, "We have six to seven months before there's consideration on legislation." She added that there is always the possibility that the Department of Highways and Department of Transportation has some sort of rule-making authority, based on emergency rules or emergency legislation. This sort of legislation is approved through the secretary of state's office and is served until the legislative branch is back in session. The legislative branch would then have the ultimate authority.
Tennant then questioned how locals can become hired for oil and gas industry jobs.
President Mason explained that the oil and gas companies have indicated that employees need training. "You can't put someone out on a rig who doesn't have training." He added, "There are training programs being instituted by the local community college, training people to go out in the field and work with oil and natural gas."
"A lot of construction companies have put people on who have contracts with drilling companies and oil and gas," Mason stated. He gave the instance of one local contractor who had a business who only had 15 people employed and then hired another 140 to work with gas companies.
Discussion then took place on the possibility of a cracker plant in the area.
"Have you all been a part of any of the discussions concerning a cracker plant?" Tennant asked.
"There were six counties in the northern panhandle that formed a coalition to support building in our area," Mason stated. "We met a couple of times and contacted people about building and locating in the upper Ohio Valley. There was an issue of land, not enough land to build the shell of the plant." Mason added, "Technology has advanced. They can build cracker plants at a smaller scale."
Discussion then took place on what jobs would be available after the drilling of the wells is completed. "How many people work on a pad?" Tennant asked.
Walter "Fuzz" Larue, an Affiliated Construction Trade (ACT) representative, who was present at Monday's meeting," stated that very little jobs are left, "probably one." He added that a computer is usually present at the site and is run by radio controlled satellite dishes. He added, "Someone in Tulsa flips a switch on a computer screen that changes valves . . . You have a gazillion pads to be taken care of, but it's done out of state."
"Chesapeake has a couple of well tenders," Gorby stated. "They go around the area and just go and check meters and stuff."
As for environmental effects, Larue stated that bromine salts are going up in the river. "Cities get water from the river," he stated, before adding that this area is getting a lot of the bromine in from oil and gas work in Pennsylvania. He stated that once it rains, the drainage from the oil and gas industry puts carcinogens in the water.
"I'm here to see the whole picture," Tennant stated. "I have been all over the state . . . because I'm a statewide elected official . . . because my job is to pull it all together. One of the interim meetings talked about re-using one of the abandoned coal mine's water that is in there. The companies have a concern if they use it, they are liable for anything that might not have not been properly cleaned up.
"When you drill a well and frack it for the first time, you use five million gallons of water," Larue stated. "In the life of that well, they will frack it three or four times. Because you are fracking it the first time, then going bigger and bigger, you use more water. You will use five million gallons, then 10, and then 20 million gallons to frack it . . . This is what I read that they are doing out west."
"We haven't done second or third generation fracking," Tennant noted. "It might be good news to keep those people hired, because we want the plants, we want to keep people hired."
"So Carol, your office, I can't even imagine what your office is going through," Tennant stated, referring to abstractors researching mineral rights.
"We are sort of on the downside," Haught responded. "Things have slowed considerably. If you had asked me that question two years ago, I wouldn't be here to answer, because I would be over at the office."
She added, "One thing these counties don't realize is that the first thing those oil and gas companies are going to do is overrun your record rooms. There is not a courthouse in this state built for that traffic."
"I don't think they realize that once that process starts, once they start drilling, people have no idea they are plopping industry down in rural, residential areas, and they are literally affecting, in a bad way, the lives of every citizen in that area . . .
Haught stated that one thing that has helped is the extra patrols, "a healthy dose of law enforcement," she said.
"I feel bad for the clerks," she added. "You need to pay a visit to Tyler County . . . it is a disaster right now, with oil and gas abstractors, they are overrun," Haught stated, saying this could mean damage to valuable records.
"That is my concern," Tennant noted. "We are needing these books 50 years from now . . . I have concern."
"We can't do away with paper record, but had we not started a really aggressive, preservation program before this happened, we wouldn't have any books left," Haught agreed.
"Some folks are using electronic records," Tennant noted.
"We are using some images on electronic," Haught agreed, "but a lot of the counties are playing catch up . . .We are going to have all of our images from 1846 and ongoing, in digital form."
"I probably wasn't as generous with the space as some of the clerks are," Haught noted, "but you have to keep in mind that local attorneys and citizens need to get into the courthouse. At one point, the abstractors were very disruptive within the courthouse, so we had to set some pretty strict guidelines aside."
"There are some positive things," Haught said, "and I think eventually we'll see some positive things. But from my perspective, dealing with it at work . . . to get to work, to get to my house, it affects a lot of my family, and there's a lot of simple things . . . They don't respect locals, and just because they term it as being isolated, sparsely populated, and we don't appreciate those terms, because it's home . . . that's where we live, and they don't understand we've lived there for generations, and they are coming in and destroying family farms."
"One of the difficult things gas companies are grappling with," Commissioner Larry Lemon noted, "is they are coming in rural America. Rural America isn't ready for it. It's going to take time and concessions to help them understand the local needs. I think local people would like a little bit better results, in respecting property rights. I think it'll come in time, but it's way too slow, and the companies have got to step up their game a little bit."
Lemon added, "As Don was saying, a lot of us just weren't ready for it. It's really pounding on us. It's going to take time."
"What's going to happen in the next phase?" Tennant asked. "Carol talks about being over the first wave of being busy. Is this the eye of the storm, or is this the back side of it? What else would happen here?
Haught responded that the next phase is the environmental impact. Just a few years ago, fracking was considered "junk science," said Haught. "The oil and gas industry will disagree with me, but a few years ago, it wasn't acceptable. I don't think we know what the environmental impact is going to be . . . the well pad or site 250 yards from peoples' homes, 250 yards away from water wells, water sewers . . . how it will affect drinking water, livestock . . ."
Haught added that seeing as the leases are only for a five-year period, some of the sites might not have drilling currently, while oil and gas companies head to other sites to drill before the five year period is up. "I think people are going to be back in the courthouse," she stated, before further adding, "Another thing . . . even the practices that the oil and gas companies go about when they are leasing . . . has been questionable.
"We don't know what kind of stabilization these hills are going to maintain," Lemley added. "We had one big slip out North Fork."
"A well pad almost went down in the stream," Haught added.
Tennant continued discussion on a future fund, raising the possibility that such a fund could be used to bring in city water to those whose water wells might get damaged from oil and gas activity. She then asked President Mason if he wanted part of the future fund to include repayment. "Do you want part of the future fund to be repayment," Tennant asked President Mason.
Mason responded that there had been a piece of legislation introduced to put more money back into the counties for road repair, "to maintain livelihood for citizens for their well-being." However, Mason added that the legislation did not go through very far.
Haught further added that she agrees with the idea of the future fund: "Those citizens and local governments should reap the benefits."
"You can have both," Mason stated. "the future fund and put money back into counties, but if the state takes 90 percent and leaves 20 percent for all counties . . . that doesn't seem quite fair to me. We are realizing more tax dollars and wanting to provide more services for our citizens, to improve their lifestyles and such, so we are seeing some benefit, but the question Carol is talking about . . . we need more money coming back in to fix these infrastructure problems."
"A future fund sounds all fine and well," Haught stated before adding, "but let's face it, Wetzel County has been deemed a distressed county. Unemployment is one of the highest in the state."
"I don't understand that," Tennant stated, citing the boisterous oil and gas activity, "Why is the unemployment rate so bad?"
"Even construction jobs aren't going to local citizens," Lemley lamented.
"A fight went through up at the Dominion plant, because they brought everybody in from Texas," Gorby stated.
Larue, an Affiliated Construction Trade (ACT) representative, added, "There were about 10 to 15 percent hired locally. Dominion chose CB&I out of Texas. The local unions didn't really press the issue, besides getting people hired locally. But we had local people here that were more than qualified to help build this."
Larue added that gas companies are "claiming all these things about how great it is, but the unemployment rate is remaining the same . . . We didn't get a legitimate answer on that."
We talked about numerous problems here, but I've learned a few things over the years: time and money cures all problems," said Larue. We have the time, but we don't have the money. When we first started this, six, seven, eight years ago, it was a four-inch pipe of money going to Tulsa. Now it's a 12-inch pipe."
Mason agreed that all the gas will be shipped out of state, adding "We need to tax one of these wells."
Gorby added, "They are going to take it to Louisiana . . . We can't let that gas go out of state free . . . We've got to tax it."
"Why don't we?" Tennant added. "Why is there no deal being made, that, you know, 'Bring us this cracker plant, a couple of them, and maybe we won't tax as much . . . Build these plants here where we can reap those benefits?'"
Tennant added that she has talked to gas companies who don't like the idea of taxes. "I agree, when the dollars are higher, we put one percent, but when lower, we don't add the tax . . . Right now, we don't have anything."
"Here's another problem," Larue added, "is the way the state gets its severance tax and landowners get royalties . . . This gas goes through a metering station. There's no state agency that oversees those . . . it's federal."
Tennant recapped the major points of concerns: "So roads, because roads affect the citizens. They see that the most, and you all are their first stop of an elected official . . . Communication is important. There's looking at the whole aspect . . ." Tennant recognized that local and commercial businesses are benefitting greatly, but added, "we all need to work together where we are benefitting together for the long run."
"Lots of millionaires have been made," Mason stated.
"There are those benefiting and those who are suffering," said Lemley. "I think they just need a peace of mind and reassurance that they are going to have drinking water that won't kill them, a road to travel on, and won't have to worry about hillside coming in their house. That's what the everyday citizen has to deal with, out in the very rural parts of Wetzel County."
Haught stated that the problem is with supplying people in rural areas with public water is an issue of expense. "We don't even have cable . . . we are talking about very rural, very spaced out. Our local PSDs are expanding, but costs are astronomical. We have one project that is affecting 90-some households. It is very costly. The local PSDs absorb that, some with loans and some grants."
Commissioner Lemon added that some grant funding is becoming less and less available and that the small cities block grant, the program that is mostly used in Wetzel County to extend city water lines, is being cut back every year.
Haught stated that the oil and gas industry comes in like a bulldozer. "It's like this . . . This is good for you. You are going to take it, and you are going to like it."
She added: "They don't address the quality of life issues we have concerns with. If they don't understand that our buses run from 6:30-7:30 in the morning . . . if they don't understand the concept of what the yellow lines mean on the road . . . if they don't understand the concept of they can't block a road, can't block a driveway . . . if they can't understand that they have to have the proper permits . . . If they don't understand those things, or don't care to address those things . . . they tend to hurt local citizens. Local citizens take notice if you don't care about being a good neighbor or respecting land or local people."
Secretary Tennant brought up the possibility of meeting with the oil and gas industry: "Don (Commission President Mason) talked about an advisory council that Chesapeake had. Can you all as a county commission bring in these folks and say, "Here is Wetzel County; here is the way we live. You are going to benefit from us, and we are going to benefit from you."
"They've been talked to and talked to, and it bounces around," Mason stated.
Haught mentioned that she attended such meetings as a citizen. "As a citizen, they really don't want us there. They have threatened that if you let (citizens) come and give them the opportunity there . . . They consider the meetings to be for emergency people only - fire departments, emergency responders." She added: "We've been told, I'm talking as a citizen . . . They don't want us there."
"And they don't," Gorby added. "Some of the gas companies refuse to come back because of complaints."
Mason stated that the oil and gas companies know they don't have to fix the issues, because "there are no regulations."
"I would show up anyway," Tennant stated. "If something is affecting my life, I would go there."
Haught stressed the importance of the gas industry listening to something as simple as the Wetzel County Schools Transportation Director telling them the school bus schedule . . . "All we need is for you to abide by this. Some of our kids out there . . . some of them are there at 6:30 a.m. Summertime is fine, but not in the winter time . . ."