Tensions High At Oil And Gas Meeting
NEW?MARTINSVILLE?- As the safety of school-age children was discussed, tensions became a bit high at the Friday, Jan. 8 meeting of the Wetzel County Oil and Gas Task Force.
Pine Grove area resident Steve Lancaster spoke to members of the task force about accidents involving trucks that are being driven for jobs related to the oil and gas industry. Lancaster said trucks are “left of center” in each accident.
Lancaster suggested a curfew for oil and gas vehicles with three or more axles; he also strongly encouraged pilot truck employers to enroll their drivers in a random drug testing program.
It was noted that EQT already has a curfew set for 6-7:40 a.m. and 3:20-5:20 p.m., hours when school buses are normally on the roads.
Lancaster further requested that monitoring of traffic by law enforcement is increased during school bus hours and that law enforcement regularly begin monitoring for traffic violations during non-curfew hours as well.
Lancaster’s final request was that oil and gas related companies instate policies that require drivers to respect curfews or face termination. Lancaster said individuals abide by federal and state laws, and company policies have as much power.
“If subcontractors know your rules, they will abide by them if one termination comes out of the policy. I don’t want to see anyone get fired, just abide by the rules.”
Lancaster also noted that mainly delivery trucks are being seen now in the Coburn and Mobley areas because drilling procedures have been completed.
“There is a product being hauled out of the area, that they are manufacturing,” he said.
Lancaster pleaded with the oil and gas industry’s representatives who were in attendance at the meeting.
“Please, for our children and your children … this could come to your town someday, and when it does I know you will all feel the way we will. Talk to your subcontractors and pilot truck drivers. We are begging you,” he pleaded.
Brian Jones, director of transportation for Wetzel County Schools, reported that less than 75 percent of the county’s students ride school buses. He was concerned about the portion of the leftover 25 percent of students who drive themselves to school during hours when oil and gas industry traffic could also be on the roadways.
“We have young men and young ladies driving themselves, and if they are anything like my children, they are sometimes running behind,” Jones said. “They aren’t as experienced as perhaps you or I, or someone with a CDL who has taken many tests.”
Furthermore, Jones reported that children as young as three-years-old ride school buses to school.
“Let’s give that three-year-old a chance to get wherever they are headed,” Lancaster pleaded. “We all know that if one of those water trucks fall over on a school bus, it’s going to be bad. If a tractor trailer falls onto the side of the bus it is going to be devastating.”
Lancaster asked the oil and gas industry’s representatives for their assistance.
“I hope you get on board with this,” he said. “We need your help. This lays in your hands.”
Sarah Lopez, an area resident who was present at the meeting, asked whether company trucks are equipped with GPS systems.
Nathaniel Manchin of EQT said some of the company’s trucks have GPS systems while others do not.
“Why don’t you have them in all?” Lopez questioned, stating that her dog had been struck and killed by a truck. She further stated that her kids play in the area.
“Why can’t you monitor how fast you are driving in front of our house?” she asked.
Manchin said EQT hires a third-party contractor for the specific purpose of monitoring the area.
Lopez stated that the company is doing an awful job of monitoring.
Rebecca Efaw, another member of the public, said her son was on a school bus that was involved in an accident with an industry truck.
“If a curfew is implemented, I think that wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “I can tell you as a parent, (the accident) was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”Jones said there is evidence of groups working together, adding that the West Virginia Department of Highways had contacted him concerning a slip repair on Doolin. “That is evidence of agencies working together,” he said.
Jones thanked the WV DOH and EQT for assisting Wetzel County Schools with making arrangements to reinstate bus routes on Wiley Fork Road, which was expected to undergo a slip repair that day.
During time set aside for public comment, a few members of the public complained about the inconvenience of the slip. Parents expressed concern that their children had to walk across the slip to meet their school bus.
Jones had reported to the Chronicle, when asked about the slip, that there is an 8.6 mile detour in place. Traveling the detour each way would add an additional hour and a half to the morning route and another hour and a half to the afternoon route.
Jones said he had contacted parents and gave them an alternative meeting point. However, rather than driving a detour, parents chose to transport their children to the slip instead.
On Thursday, Jan. 7, Wetzel County Schools then placed a bus on each side of the slip. Jones said a regular bus would be driven to the slip, where the bus would then be parked. The bus driver would walk across the slip and use a spare bus located on the other side of the slip to drive the route. Upon returning to the slip, the bus driver would monitor each of the children as they walked across to their regular bus.
Jones said no children were counted absent for difficulties in getting to school as a result of the slip.
Manchin, of EQT, stressed at the task force meeting that the slip would be fixed that day. He said the process had taken awhile, as EQT and WVDOH worked together to decide on a plan for repairs.
In another matter, Jones referenced the accident Efaw had mentioned.
“It was on North Fork Road on Nov. 19,” he stated. “A flat bed truck came into contact with one of our school buses. The contact was minor but the fact that the truck wasn’t following the curfew on the signs that are erected and posted along the road . . . that is major. The fact that an individual could not maintain their lane is major as well. While it scratched a bumper, there was potential there for injury or fatality,” Jones said.
Jones stressed the necessity of working together.
“We’ve come a long way, but I don’t think we are there yet. We have to continue to work together,” he said.
Lancaster suggested that other companies implement a curfew. “Or if they can get with EQT and put all the companies’ names on one sign, it’ll make it less expensive . . . For now, if we see trucks on the road, we will assume it is not EQT but it is somebody else. I’ve made a lot of 911 calls to the police department. I’ll make several more.”
Larry Couch, present on behalf of Blue Racer Midstream, suggested that individuals consider pursuing changes to the state code that would enforce a curfew through law.
“Companies change and come and go very frequently. Those company policies don’t apply to everybody,” he explained.
“I don’t think you could get the law changed,” Lancaster responded. “You could get a policy changed. That way you would know if that was one of your truck drivers or one of theirs. Maybe put a team at some of the problem areas. We aren’t allowed to chase down trucks because that is harassment. You could pull them off the road on up ahead, because you are with the company,” he added.
“That is a double-edged sword,” Couch said. “If I follow a company vehicle with no marking, and they are not one of my contractors, then I am harassing them.”
Couch reiterated that legislation by stating a curfew would be beneficial.
“Nationwide it would be great, not just the state of West Virginia,” Lancaster responded.
“I’ve been told to get a name of a company and license number when I see someone speeding, but I have a stopwatch in my hand, and in less than one second, the truck is pass me,” Lancaster added.
Ed Sapp, director of Wetzel County’s Office of Emergency Management, then mentioned that one company, Ascent Resources, has meetings with its vendors.
“Those vendors seemed pretty cooperative and understanding in regards to traffic,” he stated, suggesting other companies implement similar meetings.
In a related matter, Ray Renaud, also of Wetzel County OEM, noted that the task force’s escort vehicle committee may dissolve.
“We have been meeting for three years. The first year we developed practices and tested those practices. The remaining two years we tried to get those practices implemented. We tried trade associations, companies, legislatures, and pilot car companies . . . basically we haven’t been able to cross that threshold,” Renaud explained.
Lancaster noted that the escort vehicle committee should continue, adding that he would continue alerting companies if they are not following the rules.
Sapp noted that he appreciated the oil and gas industry’s representatives who were present at the meeting.
“We try to keep the meeting professional and polite and have some respect for the people who are here on their free time. They do try to take what they’ve learned back to the companies,” he stated.
Christine Mitchell of Dominion credited EQT for creating a curfew, and Sapp credited Ascent and Southwestern Energy for also taking a big interest.
“A lot of the problems with pilot vehicles do not involve companies like Ricochet,” Sapp stated, mentioning that the majority of problems stem from random pipeline companies that “are here and then gone.”
“It’s kind of hard to control those guys when they are only making one trip in here,” he explained.
Sapp then asked Wetzel County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mike Koontz about his policy regarding pilot drivers who are breaking the law.
“I can’t speak for each deputy, but they have been asked by me to not issue warnings to large trucks,” Koontz said.
Koontz said if a ticket is issued, the driver will usually go back to the company and complain.
“Word gets around that we are writing citations,” he said. “I’ve heard a couple of comments concerning pilot trucks being left-of-center. They have no right to be on the wrong side of the road for any reason. All this time that we have been dealing with this, I’ve seen two pilots that have come around a turn and put a stop sign out the window. I personally stopped and complimented them. I’m not sure that was completely right, but that is as close as I’ve ever seen.”