Where have all the guardrails gone?
Guardrails vs. Trucks
Wetzel County in northwestern West Virginia is remarkable for its steep, knobby hills and long narrow winding valleys – providing residents and visitor alike with beautiful views. Along with these scenic views, however, comes difficult roadways and dangerous traveling.
Two two-lane roads traverse the county from the west, along the Ohio River, to the east. There are very few connecting roads going north-south between these two main highways, and only one of them is semi-paved. This road is called Barker Run Road — treacherous, steep and winding. There is at least a 400-foot change in elevation in about ½ mile at one point, with multiple switchbacks.
Switchbacks have a reputation for swallowing up the long trailer component of the tractor-trailer combos, which now comprise a larger part of the traffic on Barker Run Road. Many of these trucks are heading to the HG Energy drilling sites on the ridges at the top. HG Energy has a significant footprint up there. On the east ridge there are four well pads in place and two additional pads being completed to the east, and two large ones on the ridge to the west of Barker Run Road. All that traffic must use Barker Run Road. Until the recent expansion of natural gas exploration in the area, however, I had never seen a tractor and trailer come up either side of the very steep road.
The first casualty caused by the large, long trailer trucks needed to service these well pads is always the full-time sentinels of our traffic safety – our faithful guard rails that are designed to take a beating before we and our vehicle descend over the hillside sideways or rolling over. A good example of a damaged but still useful guardrail is shown below from February on 2012 – wrinkled but useful. The very sharp turn in the roadway is also obvious here.
After leaving Route 7 heading south on Barker Run Road, one encounters a particularly sharp and steep switchback curve as shown in Figure 1. It is this kind of turn that is so sharp that it allows the driver of an overlong truck to be able to look back and check the lug nuts on the rear wheels.
On a few occasions, I have been able to actually witness the attempt of our full-time guards as they try to keep a truck somewhat close to the roadway. The below photo shows that the guardrail was barely able to keep the trailer from going completely over the hillside. The truck was stuck, causing the road to be closed for hours till help could arrive (Figure 2, below).
When that incident was over, the photo below from a few weeks later, on March 16, 2013, shows the final damaged rail (Figure 3). The guardrail and posts were replaced and were largely intact when the rail was pushed over again in May of 2013 by another oversized truck trying to get up the hill and around the turn (Figure 4). Ongoing impacts with the guardrail eventually rendered it useless. Figure 5 below is a photo taken in August of 2013.
Infrastructure Damage & Costs
When the Marcellus shale gas drilling began here in Wetzel County eight years ago, it quickly became apparent that the rapidly expanding Chesapeake Energy drilling footprint in north central Wetzel County was leaving scars in the neighborhood, particularly on the roadways. The most visible damages were the road signs, guardrails, and pavement. These effects resulted in a three-layer, road bonding program implemented by the West Virginia Department of Highways. The stipulation requires that any of the large natural gas drillers or operators must post a $1-million bond to cover them statewide, or a single highway district bond for $250,000. This bonding only applies to secondary roads. The third option is to post a bond for fixed, limited miles along specific roads. Some of the pipeline contractors who might be working in a smaller area will use the latter option. Since the DOH generally knows which companies are using the roads, the department usually knows who to approach to pay for damage. In a few cases the companies have reported the damage to the Highway department, and at other times the truckers’ insurance companies report an accident or insurance claim. .
During a recent conversation with a WV-DOH representative, I was told that he quite frequently gets good cooperation from the gas industry companies in paying for damages. He said this is true even when a number of different companies and dozens of their subcontractors are using the same road.
Usually the guardrails just need to be fixed or replaced and new posts installed. Sometimes it is not critical that it be done immediately. However, at times the repairs should be done now. A good example of when repairs are needed soon is shown below in Figure 7, right. This remnant is the shredded, mangled, twisted remains of the stubborn effort of the steel to stop a truck.
The rail has now been totally sliced open, making it an extraordinary danger to the traveling public. As we enter the winter season with a bit of snow and ice on this steep road above this section, any of my neighbors could slide into this. I am optimistic that it will be replaced soon and have had several conversations with the WV-DOH to speed up the process.
By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles.