Officials remain skeptical about gas drilling bringing local jobs

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Sheriff: Alien Labor Used
Drilling contractors used illegal immigrant workers, Hoskins says

February 8, 2011 – By CASEY JUNKINS

NEW MARTINSVILLE – Studies show West Virginia’s natural gas drillers employed nearly 10,000 people in 2009. However, some of the workers may not have been legal residents of the United States.

“We have caught 13 undocumented workers in the last few years, several of whom were working for drilling contractors in the area,” said Wetzel County Sheriff James Hoskins.

On Friday, Hoskins testified before the West Virginia House Judiciary Committee regarding his experiences with Marcellus Shale natural gas drillers working in his county. The Legislature is considering some bills that would impose new regulations on the drillers and that could increase the cost for drilling permits.

Hoskins did not immediately recall which companies were employing the undocumented workers at the time of their arrests, but he emphasized though Wetzel County law enforcement has caught just 13, he is confident many more have so far evaded authorities.

Wetzel County’s unemployment rate increased from 12.5 percent in November to 14.4 percent in December, according to WorkForce West Virginia, prompting Hoskins to note, “When we have high unemployment around here, we should be giving these jobs to our workers.”

Officials with Chesapeake Energy, the most active driller in the local area, recently said the company is now employing 702 Mountain State residents. West Virginia labor leaders remain skeptical, though, and hope the Legislature will impose some sort of hiring requirements on the state’s natural gas companies.

Hoskins said Wetzel County is “Ground Zero” when it comes to studying the effects of the Marcellus Rush on West Virginia. Indeed, drilling site maps provided by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection show both Wetzel and Marshall counties stamped with multiple gas wells, with more on the way to Ohio and Brooke counties.

“The issues are now being brought to the forefront, which is good,” said Hoskins. “I told the committee about a variety of concerns residents have expressed to me. I felt they were very attentive.”

Hoskins also spoke to the committee about concerns regarding water contamination, fires, explosions and other problems.

In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued four orders for compliance against Chesapeake for unauthorized work in Wetzel and Marshall counties, citing the driller for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act from January 2007 until November.

Also, a June 7 explosion at an AB Resources drilling site outside Moundsville injured several workers and ignited a large fireball that burned for several days. Then in September, a Chesapeake gas well on Pleasants Ridge near Cameron ignited. State environmental regulators cited the firm for “failing to prevent the release of natural gas and the potential pollution of waters of the state.”

Hoskins is also worried about “oversized and over-width” trucks driving on Wetzel County’s narrow country roads, noting that steep grades and sharp turns have him concerned that the county may see a fatality in the event of a major crash.

“Chesapeake agreed to limit traffic during school hours to avoid problems with school buses and trucks using the same road,” he said, acknowledging the efforts of the Oklahoma City-based driller.

Hoskins said the main issue is that the influx of drilling company activity to the area is “disturbing a way of life that people are used to.”

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