MOUNDSVILLE - A new type of temporary housing is showing up in Marshall County, as energy companies are now seeking permits for "labor camps" for those working in the natural gas industry.
For Marshall County Health Department Administrator Ronda Francis, this marks a first in her 26-year career. According to public health laws, companies that have sites with 10 or more people working and living at a site must apply for a labor camp permit.
"I have been here for 26 years. We've never had a labor camp in the time that I have been here until last month," Francis said. "It is something you just don't see."
Photo by Casey Junkins
Marshall County Health Department Administrator Ronda Francis reviews permits in her office.
Companies drilling in the region are setting up these labor camps near well sites, which, given Marshall County's size and terrain, could make sense. In a typical campground, the pipeliners or drillers bring their own individual RVs in which to live. Any property owner can seek a permit to run such a campground.
Francis said the labor camps differ from this in that they are operated by the gas companies themselves - whether it be the drilling company or the well holder - a company such as CNX Gas, Chevron or Chesapeake, for example. Instead of having individual campers, she said these facilities feature large trailers that can house numerous workers - similar to the so-called "man camps" that have become popular in North Dakota's Bakken Shale region.
"They can just move them from site to site, depending on where they need the workers," she said of the labor camps. "One of them came in February, but they already moved on. We have one here now."
In addition to the permits Francis' office issues, she said someone running a labor camp also must also obtain a sewage permit from the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health.
As for those operating the standard RV parks, Francis said the operators must provide a plan to deal with sewage.
"If they have a holding tank, it must be permitted by the state," she said. "The tanks must be pumped regularly."
Two years ago, officials in Belmont County shut down an RV campground along Ohio 9 north of St. Clairsville because it did not have a proper sewage system. Some of the water systems at these campsites can be fairly primitive, as one property owner tried to get by with simply hooking up a garden hose to a faucet to send water to the campers.
Francis said her office, to this point, has not needed to shut down any campsites for this problem. In addition to issuing permits for campgrounds and labor camps, Francis said her office has "plenty of additional work" because of the oil and gas business. She said the office has tested some private water wells to determine if they have been contaminated by stray gases that may have been released by fracking.
Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble said his office conducted some air quality testing near well sites in that county. He said his workers found high levels of benzene in the air at some sites.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some short-term symptoms of benzene exposure include dizziness, rapid heartbeat, headaches and tremors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains that high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia.
Francis said her office has not conducted any air testing, but she said the industry keeps her staff busy because transient workers often bring their children to the health department for immunizations required by Marshall County Schools.
"We have seen a tremendous increase in the number of immunizations we do for school children. Many states don't require everything that West Virginia requires for children to go to school, so they come in here to get what they need," she said.
Francis fully expects to stay busy with RV parks and labor camps for the next few years, as the county's shale industry continues to grow.