Marcellus Shale Industry Obliged to Repair State Roads

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
22 June 2011
By Jon Schmitz

The Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry has taken a toll on the state's roads, and its member companies have also paid a toll.

It's an open question whether the $411 million the companies have invested since 2008 to repave and improve roads is enough, said Scott Christie, deputy secretary for highway administration for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

"Has that significantly improved things? Has it allowed us to keep pace? We haven't quite gotten to the point where we can answer," Mr. Christie said Tuesday, after he spoke at the second annual Marcellus Transportation Safety Day in Washington County.

The department will study the issue county by county, he said, but there is no timetable yet for completing the inquiry.

The event at Southpointe, sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, made up of 201 industry companies, was intended to raise awareness of regulations and safety issues related to the burgeoning gas drilling business, coalition president and executive director Kathryn Z. Klaber said. "It's to raise the bar on operating

Some statistics quoted by PennDOT and state police officials at the event suggested that some bar-raising is needed.

State police Maj. Harvey Cole Jr. said that in response to significant increases in truck traffic, the department had conducted 5,800 roadside inspections of industry trucks since January 2010 and found 13,000 driver and vehicle safety violations, including 2,800 serious enough to put the driver or truck out of service.

In all, 42 percent of the inspections resulted in pulling drivers or vehicles out of service, he said. The national average for all truck inspections is 24 percent.

"We've found that the industry has a higher out-of-service rate than the overall commercial vehicle industry," said Kevin Stewart, program administrator for the department's commercial vehicle safety section.

While the top reasons for ordering drivers off the road were related to paperwork, the most frequent vehicle deficiencies that caused removal from service were faulty brake tubing and hoses, lighting, poorly adjusted and defective brakes, and improperly secured cargo, he said.

After fatal crashes involving all commercial vehicles fell sharply from 2007 to 2009, the total shot up again in 2010, when there were 152 such crashes, 24 more than the year before, he said.

In conjunction with Tuesday's forum, the shale coalition released results of a survey of 28 member companies that determined they had spent a combined $411 million fixing or improving roads since 2008.

"We understand and recognize the concerns regarding the increase in truck traffic and its impact on our roads," Ms. Klaber said. "And we also understand, as good neighbors, that we must do everything to ensure that we leave these roads in better condition than when our operations started."

Mr. Christie said that since 2008, coinciding with the shale gas boom, more than 4,000 miles of state roadway had been posted with weight restrictions, sometimes because of truck damage and sometimes in anticipation of large truck traffic from new well sites. Of PennDOT's 40,000 miles of roads, 11,253 miles, more than one-quarter, are restricted, he said.

PennDOT requires companies to obtain permits to run heavy trucks on the weight-restricted roads. To do so, they must enter agreements to repair any damage caused by the trucks and post bond for every mile of road being used, he said. The department inspects such roads at least weekly and notifies companies when repairs are needed. In most cases, they have five days to start the work and 10 more to complete it and could have their permits revoked if they don't comply.

Companies generally have been responsive, Mr. Christie said. "The simple fact is the industry is fixing the roads."

Drilling operators are also required to obtain "driveway permits" for the access roads leading to wells and utility permits to run pipeline within PennDOT rights of way, said Glenn Rowe, PennDOT division chief for highway safety and traffic engineering.

Some companies assume that if there's a road leading to the well, they don't need a permit, he said, showing a slide of a muddy dirt road whose entrance created a dangerous intersection on a state highway. "This is a situation we're seeing more and more."

Another slide showed a water pipeline that a driller had illegally installed in a drainage culvert, blocking it.

"We need to work together," Mr. Rowe told the group. "There may be some entities out there who are oblivious to the regulations. Bring it to PennDOT's attention. You don't want a black eye for the industry."

Most companies that have been cited for violations have moved quickly to correct them, he said.

Industry officials said safe and responsible transportation practices are vital to gaining public support for shale drilling, which has spawned controversy across the state. A major factor in shaping the industry's image, Ms. Klaber said, is how vehicles operate in the community.

Rob Hilliard, chair of the coalition's road use committee, said members need to do a better job of public relations.

The best way to do that, he said, is: "Do our jobs. Do them correctly. Do them safely. Every single day."

Jon Schmitz: 412-263-1868.