Gas Drilling Traffic Leads To Student Safety Concerns

As Marshall County roads see more travel from large trucks as a result of Marcellus Shale gas drilling, local officials are concerned about the safety of the roads for students traveling on school buses.

During a meeting Thursday with representatives from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department, West Virginia State Police and other county offices, Beth Bertram, Marshall County Schools transportation supervisor, said she has heard numerous concerns from bus drivers not only about the deplorable condition of the roads, but also the ability of large trucks carrying drilling equipment to safely pass on those roads. She said delays occur on a regular basis in areas such as Fork Ridge and Rines Ridge, which seem to be the areas with the heaviest truck flow.

“We have had buses delayed for 19 minutes at a time because a truck had gotten stuck on the hill,” she said.

Marshall County Emergency Management Director Tom Hart said he frequently sees truck drivers stop to unload equipment in the middle of the road, which not only causes delays but can impede emergency vehicles from passing in a timely fashion.

“They are stopping in the roadway, and then they don’t have places to put the equipment right away so they put the equipment there, too,” he said.

In addition to blocking roadways, the condition of the roads has also caused problems.

Carl White, enforcement officer for the West Virginia Department of Transportation, said most large trucks carry blanket permits allowing them to exceed the 55-foot length requirement. Despite objections, the permit does not regulate when those trucks can travel, making it hard to stop trucks from sharing roads with school buses during commutes. However, he said a request can be made to have a time stipulation placed on the permit that would limit the hours during which trucks can travel. Bertram said she would look into that possibility.

Though delays are minor annoyances, Bertram said the safety of students is the most important issue. She added while some companies work with the district to not have conflicting travel schedules, smaller subgroups and contractors hired by the major companies are harder to deal with.

“A lot of these drivers are from out of state, so they aren’t used to these types of roads and driving conditions,” she said.

Other areas mentioned as problematic included the Dallas and Sand Hill sections of Marshall County, as well as Oklahoma Road in that area, which officials said has essentially turned into a dirt road, made almost impassable by bad weather. Tom Wood, general supervisor for Marshall County Schools, said those areas will become even more important in the coming months as students return to class at Sand Hill Elementary School. Students from Sand Hill have been attending Hilltop Elementary School since November while Consol Energy crews mine coal beneath the Sand Hill building.

Hart said while complaints are being handled by every law enforcement agency and the Marshall County Commission, he has noticed that in time, those complaints taper off.

“Folks seem like they are getting used to the bad roads and they know when and how they have to drive on them,” he said. “But with the way this is spreading, there are always going to be areas where folks are upset with road conditions and safety is in question, and we need to do something about that.”

A meeting is scheduled for March 1 between school officials and representatives from the drilling companies to express concerns and come up with a plan to allow for safer travel, Wood said.