Gas industry's interest called 'godsend' for W.Va.
MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. — Three months ago, Jim Kudlak's property on the outskirts of Moundsville was a little-used wooded lot.
Today, it's an RV park where Kudlak leased all 40 spaces in 24 hours, he said. Gas pipeline workers from Arkansas, Louisiana, Wisconsin and elsewhere pay $600 a month to park temporary homes on spots connected to water and sewer lines. A pile of cleared trees sits in the distance while a steamroller flattens recycled blacktop to set up as many as 60 more spaces.
“They're bringing so much business in, it's unreal,” said Kudlak, 51, a retired Moundsville police chief. “We've taken a piece of property that was nothing and made it something. So however long it lasts, it's going to be great.”
In West Virginia, the boom is on. From Brooke County in the panhandle just an hour's drive from Downtown Pittsburgh, to more than 100 miles south in Doddridge County, the region is the place to be for the natural gas industry, especially its middlemen. Western Pennsylvania might have won the opportunity to house a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant that Shell might build in several years, but northcentral West Virginia is getting several billion dollars of investment in a network that includes miles of pipelines and at least seven processing plants.
The gas in this region is rich with liquid hydrocarbons such as ethane and propane, drawing Marcellus shale drillers west when the price of pure methane fell earlier this year. That richer gas has to be piped for special processing, and while lack of infrastructure slowed initial growth here compared with Pennsylvania, it's since led to big capital investments.
The rich, multi-product gas, the prime location between liquid-rich areas in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, and a ready-to-go system of rail and river transport have turned a region that once boomed from oil drilling, coal mining and steelmaking into a blooming processing hub for the gas industry.
“That's what gives us that long-term future. Because of that processing, our jobs are going to stay here,” said Tom Gray, business manager of Wheeling-based Laborers Local 1149, which added about 300 members in less than 15 months. “It's incredible for us.”
‘They ain't going to go away'
The six-county strip from Brooke to Doddridge added 10 drilling rigs in the past year, according to numbers from Baker Hughes Inc., a Texas-based drilling services company. It had 24 as of Friday, nearly as many as the nine-county area around Pittsburgh.
There are billions of dollars worth of pipelines and processing plants, Three of the industry's biggest companies are leading the buildup, especially around Moundsville in Marshall County.
• A company controlled by Williams Companies Inc. spent $2.5 billion this spring to buy a growing pipeline system. Williams plans to spend $1.34 billion through 2014 to build and expand three processing plants in Marshall County and its network of pipelines.
• Dominion Resources Inc. is making what might be the biggest single investment — $500 million — in one plant that separates ethane, propane and butane.
• MarkWest Energy Partners is building three plants and planning major expansions at each before even finishing their first phases. Cost figures were unavailable, but investor reports show the largest of the three will have five times the capacity of Dominion's project.
“They ain't going to go away. ... We're looking at this thing for decades,” said Tim Carr, an energy professor at West Virginia University. “I think the future looks good. It just takes time. They're building pipelines as fast as they can.”
Dominion's plant is about 15 miles south of Moundsville along the Ohio River. Pipeline work typically is a transient business, but several out-of-state workers in Moundsville said contractors told them to anticipate jobs there for years, maybe even a decade.
“We've had a terrible decline. A lot of our steel mills have gone under,” said Mary Fran Kowalo, 58, a lifelong Wheeling resident and former director with the Wheeling Board of Realtors. “That was really depressing, so this is a big boom, a big boost for our community.”
Rental rates around Wheeling have skyrocketed, said Kowalo of First Choice Realtors. A three-bedroom house that once cost about $600 a month now goes for $2,000. Moundsville residents complain of long lines at grocery stores and rising prices at Wal-Mart. An oil and gas storage company has set up in Weirton and the state is in the early stages of considering an investment to help improve its river access, said Doug York, executive director of the West Virginia Public Port Authority.
There's boom-town tension, too, from rising prices and congestion to concerns over public safety, locals said. Marshall County is trying to get a handle on pop-up RV communities such as Kudlak's that formed in the past year. There are at least three others, and there was one at the fairgrounds, too, until it closed for the annual fair, Kudlak said.
Some people living in them have had trouble directing emergency responders to their homes, said Betsy Frohnapfel, the county administrator.
Vehicle accidents have become a problem because some truck drivers are unfamiliar with the region's curvy, hilly roads, she added.
One truck rolled over, running Thomas Berisford's 75-year-old wife off the road, said Berisford, 79, of Moundsville. She survived but needs months of rehabilitation before she can walk again, he said.
“A lot of that is going on around here,” he said. “It's a lot of industry, but still, they imported all the workers. ... I suppose these drivers are trying to do their jobs, but they're really making a mess out of things.”
Many locals feel the same way Berisford does about who's getting the work, several of the migrant workers said. It requires special skills, and that usually draws people willing to migrate across the country, but locals are upset they aren't getting more jobs.
That isn't necessarily true, as companies have hired many local workers, said Steven White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation. Others have not, and his group led protests and ran television ads complaining about Dominion's out-of-state contractors on pipelines and the processing plant.
“In some areas it's been a fantastic job-creator for local construction workers and contractors. In fact, it's been a godsend in a down economy,” White said, adding that hasn't been the case everywhere. “We want to work closely to maximize the local benefit from these opportunities. Because if we don't, West Virginia has a long history of being just a resource station — whether it was timber or the coal industry — and that would be terrible to happen again.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.