Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Seminar for police focuses on potential gas-drilling issues

By Ray Finger Star Gazette

The law enforcement community, already trained to deal with hazardous materials, was given some additional insight Monday in handling potential issues related to natural gas drilling in the region.
Fifty people from agencies in Tompkins, Broome, Schuyler and Chemung counties registered for the Chemung County Sheriff's Office seminar, including representatives of the state Department of Environmental Conservation Police and New York State Police, county sheriff's Capt. Thomas Argetsinger said.
"It's a pretty good cross-section of people," he said, noting all agencies are going to be impacted simultaneously when the hydraulic fracturing process for extracting natural gas, also known as hydrofracking, is approved for use in New York state. The meeting was held at the Holiday Inn-Riverview in Elmira.
One of the issues discussed Monday was the volume of gas industry workers coming into the area, Argetsinger said.

"These ladies and gentlemen are paid very well, but they're also isolated for six months from their families. A lot of them are from the Midwest. So the 12 hours they're on, they work very hard. The 12 hours they're off, they don't have a lot to do. Idle minds and idle hands," Argetsinger said. "Not to point a finger, but it's just a matter of our being aware of it also. It could be an issue."
Bradford County District Attorney Dan Barrett, another speaker at Monday's seminar, said earlier that many unmarried gas workers don't have the same responsibilities as longtime residents or new residents with families, such as going home after work to mow the lawn or rake leaves. That means a lot of time for trouble, he said.
In 2009, Pennsylvania State Police made 136 drunken driving arrests in Bradford County, Pennsylvania's most heavily drilled county. In 2010, the number of DUI arrests totaled 216.
The agency is on track to make 351 arrests in the county in 2011, Barrett said in a presentation he made in October at a U.S. Department of Justice-sponsored law enforcement conference at State College, Pa.
In Towanda Borough, with a population of about 3,000, police have also seen a rise in DUI cases from 21 in 2009 to 30 in 2010 and a projected 60 for 2011.
"We can't attribute any crimes to the industry itself," Barrett said in his October presentation. "The strain is from the large numbers of people who work in the industry. Most behave, some don't."
Monday's seminar was precedent setting, said Michael S. Smith, director of fire and emergency management for Chemung County and one of the event's speakers.
"We've recognized some time ago in Chemung County that the more education we can provide for both law enforcement and the fire service, the better off we'll be as we approach the day that hydraulic fracturing begins here," he said.
"We already have over 90 gas wells in Chemung County that have been drilled in the conventional fashion. Quite frankly, they have been pretty much without incident," Smith said. "We've had some accidents, people injured, these kinds of things, but that's not unusual at all in any kind of an industrial setting. We've not had anything else that would be particularly alarming."
His intent was to help law enforcement understand the types of materials being used in the hydrofracking process, and also to help them understand that there really isn't any need to be overly concerned about the kinds of materials being used, he said.
"Most of them are pretty innocuous. On a regular basis, far more hazardous material is being used in the community in the existing businesses and in transportation that goes through here every day," Smith said. "So, the hope was to help them understand the nature of the materials that are being used and the fact that we're pretty familiar with them and have a good response plan, should anything take place."
The primary concern that officials have had is the kinds of on-site industrial accidents that might occur at well sites, he said.
"These can be trips, slips, falls. They may be long falls for people who are working up on the drilling rig or on the platform. They can fall a fairly substantial distance. The other kinds of concerns are people getting struck with objects that are being moved," Smith said.
"These are all industrial-type accidents, and we deal with those throughout the community because obviously we have many industrial operations in the Chemung County area, but this is kind of a new environment. We're going to be outdoors now and working with big stuff. Some of these things are fairly large," he said. "We just want to make sure that everybody is giving them all of the respect that they should have."
What is involved is far greater than just drilling a hole in the ground, Argetsinger said.
"That's part of what we're doing here -- trying to make sure we understand the big picture out there," he said.
Monday's seminar would seem particularly timely after a Georgia man was charged last week with dumping about 800 gallons of a dangerous sludge onto state game lands in Warren Township in Bradford County. The sludge came from a nearby Strope gas well run by Talisman Energy.
"You don't want to expect that to happen, but the reality is it could happen," Argetsinger said.
Monday's seminar was basically about raising awareness and a good starting point, he said, adding that it is hard to predict how involved training could get. The Chemung County Sheriff's Office plans to continue in-service training and keep people up to speed. Other agencies will probably do their own individual training, and it's likely they would share their insights with each other, he said

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