W.Va. Sen. Rockefeller hearing on shale gas development focuses on road safety


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FAIRMONT, W.Va. -- The brief testimony of a West Virginia sheriff Wednesday was enough to put the Marcellus Shale industry on the defensive as Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., probed companies on who is driving the heavy trucks that dominate his state's roadways.

Marshall County Sheriff John Gruzinskas said he oversees a staff strapped by investigations into driving problems that have come with out-of-state drivers trying to navigate West Virginia's winding, one-lane roads.

"They go through people's yards. They tear up people's fences," said Mr. Gruzinskas, speaking at a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Mr. Rockefeller chairs the committee.

A majority of the 11 testimonies delivered came from industry boosters, but Mr. Gruzinskas's detailing of disruptions -- such as elderly drivers being run off the road -- became a referendum on who is behind the wheel.

More seemed to be at stake than the well-being of Marshall County drivers.

West Virginia lost a high-profile competition for a Shell Oil Co. facility last month to Pennsylvania, and company concerns over the state's infrastructure were cited as a reason. The state, meanwhile, sits above just the kind of lucrative gas that could attract other petrochemical facilities and the jobs and investment that come with them.

Mr. Rockefeller's committee focuses on infrastructure issues such as roads and pipelines, but it was Mr. Gruzinskas's testimony of shale drivers who don't care about West Virginia that most concerned the senator.

Mr. Gruzinskas likened the Marcellus boom to an "invasion" for his county and said the torn-up roadways have forced him to increase his maintenance budget to pay for flat tires and ripped-out exhausts on his patrol cars. It also proves difficult to track down offending drivers when all of the suspects look like big white trucks, he said.

Once an aggressive driver is found, companies typically work with law enforcement to pay fines and repave the road, sometimes applying thicker asphalt than the state usually does, said Paul Maddox, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

Everyone seemed to agree that navigating West Virginia's winding roads is an art. Mr. Gruzinskas pointed to subcontractors with out-of-state employees unfamiliar with the roads as part of the problem, saying they have a disdain for a state that is not theirs.

Mr. Rockefeller seized on that point, asking Randy Albert, chief operating officer of gas operations at Consol Energy, why his Cecil, Pa.-based company didn't use subcontractors who employ native drivers.

Subcontractors are chosen based on who submits the lowest bid, and Consol and other companies cannot mandate who their subcontractors employ, said Mr. Albert.

"You know what? I think you can," said Mr. Rockefeller. Choosing not to work with a company is one kind of mandate, he said.

The hearing also served as a team huddle for West Virginia officials still disappointed over the news that Shell Oil Co. had chosen a site near Monaca, Pa., to build a massive ethane cracker facility that will process shale gas.

When Shell decided not to locate the plant in West Virginia, U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said company officials told him that the problems lie in his state's "rail, river and roads."

More petrochemical facilities of a similar size are expected to be built throughout the Appalachian region, but Mr. Rockefeller said he's not currently talking to any companies about sites in West Virginia.

The state's concentration of "wet" gas that comes out of the ground loaded with hydrocarbons positions it as a likely place for petrochemical plants that can process those hydrocarbons. Global energy markets are aligning in the state's favor.

During the testimony, natural gas prices traded below $2, a symbolic milestone on the commodity's precipitous price drop to record lows. Hydrocarbons, however, trade more closely with oil and have become a better bet for gas firms deciding where to put the rigs.

Transportation - businessnews - marcellusshale

Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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