Wetzel County Oil & Gas Task Force discusses road safety

Photo by Lauren Matthews Wetzel County Office of Emergency Management’s Ray Renaud shows video of oil and gas industry traffic on the road below his home.

NEW MARTINSVILLE — Frustrations with oil and gas industry traffic were apparent Friday at the Wetzel County Oil & Gas Task Force meeting.

Ray Renaud of the Wetzel County Office of Emergency Management said oil and gas development started in the area 12 years ago, while task force meetings began seven years ago.

Renaud said these meetings were dominated by safety issues involving trucks. He said, at this point, the task force elected to start a road safety committee. After listening to residents’ concerns and conducting research, the committee decided to “establish some best practices for using trucks on our highways,” he said.

Renaud said the committee tried to approach the Department of Highways, which is in charge of road-use permits, to see whether it would recommend the committee’s best practices.

“We aren’t asking for legislation,” he said. “We are asking to look at the best practices and do what we can to keep the roads safe.”

Renaud said the DOH follows recommended federal guidelines; however, these mainly pertain to oversized vehicles on major highways, he said. Also, federal guidelines pertain mainly to reporting procedures, according to Renaud.

The commissioner of highways has not agreed to the task forces’s proposals, according to Renaud.

“He has not assented to distributing our best practices,” Renaud said. “They said the federal guidelines are good enough.”

Bob Ashley, a representative of Gov. Jim Justice, asked why the local highways district was not represented at the task force meeting. Renaud said the DOH was invited, but the representatives had prior commitments.

Renaud showed a video of the road below his home that appeared to show a constant flow of oil and gas traffic.

Renaud said the video “goes on for half an hour.”

“I don’t want to bore you with this, but remember, I can’t stop this at my house,” he said. “I have to watch this all the time.”

Renaud gave examples of the impact of gas development truck traffic. He said there are safety concerns, such as the danger of accidents and/or vehicle damage, or danger to pedestrians, children, and pets.

He said traffic inhibits the quality of life, such as causing traveling delays. He said he is unable to open his windows for fresh air or sit on his porch.

Renaud said there have been cases of drainage ditches collapsing and ruptures in water lines.

“I am an emergency responder; I have to get my truck aligned twice a year,” Renaud said.

As for accidents, Renaud said around four years ago, Southwestern Energy came to the area and started requiring the use of pilot vehicles as escorts. He said the amount of emergency calls related to oil and gas traffic incidents dropped dramatically.

“This shows how effective best practices can be,” Renaud said.

One of the committee’s best practices is to use a pilot car escort. Renaud also recommends adequate distance between the pilot vehicle and the first truck so that traffic does not become gridlocked.

“We are proposing a maximum of three 18-wheelers in a convoy or five 10-wheelers,” Renaud said. “The problem is, they aren’t separated by enough distance to allow trucks to pull over for incoming traffic.”

Renaud showed a video example of a convoy that measured more than one mile long. He said it took him 20 minutes to travel three miles due to the convoy.

Another recommended practice is for the trucks to utilize a sign on the front of the truck to note the number of vehicles in the convoy.

However, Renaud said he has found the signs are inaccurate. Therefore, Renaud recommended that the last truck in the convoy flash its lights.

He also recommended CB radios, requiring them and standardizing the use of frequencies.

“Consider road signs to let truckers know what channel to use,” Renaud said.

He also recommended better coordination.

“When multiple companies or multiple activities are taking place, we need to develop a system of scheduling so that the trucks don’t cause gridlock.”

Brian Jones, director of transportation for Wetzel County Schools, also expressed frustrations with oil and gas industry traffic. Buses have been unable to complete routes due to oil and gas trucks getting stuck in the roadways, causing parents to pick up their children to take them home, Jones said.

“Asking parents to drive a number of miles to pick kids up… it can produce a hardship, maybe not to you and maybe not to me…” he said.

“You deal with coils, and I deal with kids,” said Jones.

Trying to move loads at 2 p.m. when school is about to be released for the day is “poor judgment, at very best,” Jones said.

Jeremy Shepherd, bus driver, said he has had near-misses with smaller company trucks being driven by workers hurrying to get to the job site.

County resident Bill Hughes said he has attended task force meetings for seven years. He said many would “readily admit traffic management has gotten better.”

Seven years ago there was one company, he said. “It’s now gotten a lot more complicated with a lot more drillers, operators, and subcontractors in many more areas of the county,” he said.

Hughes suggested coordination, communication and cooperation to make the traffic flow better. He said some companies utilize certain CB channels, which aren’t posted along the routes drivers use.

“I think we can do some of these things, provide maps and directions, require CB radios, make sure drivers know the channels, and post mile markers along the road,” Hughes said.

“Get rid of the phones and give good directions. The companies are paying good money for expensive equipment on the back of the truck,” he said. “It is probably important the driver gets to your site and doesn’t wander around without an escort, getting lost and getting in the way of other residents and causing harm to themselves and others.”

As to a road repair update, Delegate Dave Pethtel said he had spoken with Gus Suwaid, District Six’s engineer. Pethtel said Suwaid reported he requested that OH/WV Excavating begin repairs to American Ridge.

“(Suwaid) told me on Schupbach Ridge that slip was so bad they are still trying to figure out what engineering technique to use to fix that slip,” he said.

“I know people are really frustrated on both American and Schupbach ridges, especially American, because it has been closed for quite a while, way over a year,” Pethtel said.

Wetzel County Commissioner Larry Lemon agreed, saying the commission is applying its “pressure and influence,” to highlight the need for repairs.

State Sen. Charles Clements said he talked to representatives from the highways department who said they were moving equipment and supplies to American Ridge.