Experts guide vehicles over Pennsylvania’s rural roads to gas wells |
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Nicholas Maffessanti, safety and training manager of Magna Service Agency, checks over some of the company's safety equipment in a lot off of Interstate 79, in Washington County, Thursday, April 2, 2015.

With hundreds of truck trips needed to haul water, sand and equipment to and from each drill site, directing traffic over the rolling hills of Marcellus shale country can seem like it requires a magic wand — or at least an orange flag.

That’s where Mike Boyde comes in.

The president of Washington-based Magna Service Agency contracts with drilling companies and teaches road flaggers and pickup drivers to guide tractor-trailers, heavy machinery and oversized loads over sometimes delicate roads.

“We go out and escort trucks and convoy safely. We call out any hazards on the roads,” Boyde said. “It’s not like your typical construction site.”

Transportation safety and coordination form a key focus for the shale gas industry, with companies like Boyde’s hired to help maneuver vehicles so they don’t cause accidents.

Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in oil and gas industry accidents, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Drillers also are looking to avoid causing gridlock or high-profile incidents that could bring more pressure to an industry under heavy scrutiny from regulators and opponents.

“You don’t want to be bumping into someone else’s acid truck, because you could cause a spill,” said Mark Hansen, who runs safety operations for Fort Worth-based FTS International, which contracts with gas producers to frack wells. He knows if it were not for the workers in reflective orange vests waving luminescent wands, the heavy equipment on a well pad could be a disaster waiting to happen.

“It could be mass anarchy if you didn’t have ground guides and flaggers maneuvering equipment in the right location.”

The company was a featured participant at the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s most recent Transportation Safety Day, an annual event bringing together government, law enforcement and drilling companies to review best practices. The coalition has held eight such events, in addition to flagger certification trainings to teach traffic controls and work zone procedures at a drilling site.

Ground guides, Hansen said, are “the eyes behind you” to help drivers see past their blind spot. In addition, FTS uses a video recording technology called “Drivecam” on its trucks. Accidents and close calls can be reviewed, providing feedback for driver training and coaching.

“We saw an immediate decrease in close-following by 60 percent,” he said. “We saw a drop in not looking far enough ahead by 50 percent. We had a really huge, dramatic change in driving behavior.”

Tractor-trailers carting water and chemicals often need to use rural, narrow roads to get to drilling sites, said Loren Dworakowski, president of Ambridge-based Beemac Trucking. He employs about 35 drivers experienced enough to handle drilling industry jobs, and says he’ll never send a first-time driver alone.

“Instead of double-checking, it’s triple-checking,” he said. “A lot of these wells are in a remote location and you have to travel to get there. It’s very dangerous, a lot more than your standard steel load you’re taking to the city.”

On the way to a site, drivers are taught to pull over if a truck is coming in the opposite direction on narrow, rural roads.

Dave Spigelmeyer, president of the North Fayette-based shale coalition, said companies must follow specific rules and regulations about vehicle escorts, when to have flagging operators, weight restrictions on bridges and any local rules.

“We want to make sure our folks are fully aware of the rules and regulations,” he said. “That’s what the training is all about, to heighten our level of compliance and to make sure we’re protecting Pennsylvania’s infrastructure.”

In September, a truck from Buccaneer Enterprises caused a partial collapse on a historic metal truss bridge spanning Ten Mile Creek in Greene County. The water tanker damaged the bridge deck because it exceeded the 4-ton weight limit. The West Virginia company, which was hauling water to an EQT Corp. site, agreed to pay $245,000 to fix the bridge.

Spigelmeyer called that an isolated incident. Companies map out what routes trucks need to take that can handle the weight, he said.

“There’s no excuse there,” Spigelmeyer said. “The roads for our use are clearly defined by their operators and those are worked out with the municipalities and the state.”

Elam Herr, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, said communication is key to safe road travel.

He recalled a town requesting a nearby drilling company suspend use of its trucks while school buses were traveling the same roads. Several companies make similar arrangements with local schools and communities.

“Big trucks and little kids, or big trucks and school buses, don’t always work on the same type of road,” he said. “The township just contacted them, called to talk to them, the drilling company said, ‘Yes, no problem.’ ”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].

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