As oil and gas companies look to hire local workers in eastern Ohio's booming Marcellus and Utica shales, local and company officials say they are keeping a cautious eye on the issue of drug abuse in the region.

Ohio's shale country overlaps three of the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network's eight regions. According to the agency's most recent report, which was released in January, the availability of heroin had increased in all three of those regions -- Akron-Canton, Athens and Youngstown -- but the availability of other drugs, including prescription opioids, had generally declined.

Columbiana County Commissioner Mike Halleck told NGI's Shale Daily he was concerned about the issue but added that he was confident oil and gas companies were doing an excellent job of screening their job candidates. "There is a problem," Halleck said Thursday. "People don't want to talk about it. We have many mayors and township trustees that, to some extent, want to turn their head on this issue."

Halleck said that during a recent meeting of the County Commissioners' Association of Ohio, a commissioner from another county told him a story of an employer looking to hire a security guard. Of the 100 people who were considered potential hires for the job, only 10 passed a drug test.

According to a report in the Salem News, Columbiana County Commissioner John Payne told attendees of the board's March meeting that he knew of an employer who tested 32 people to drive water-hauling trucks. According to Payne, only two people passed a subsequent drug test. Payne could not be reached for comment by NGI's Shale Daily.

"I told [the other commissioner] that I have a great concern about this," Halleck said. "And when you're working in [the oil and gas industry] and working with equipment and trucks, you've got to have skill sets, and certainly clean driving records. Obviously drugs and alcohol can't be a part of your life to stay gainfully employed."

Halleck said unemployment in parts of Ohio, although now in decline, hit 15% a year or two ago. "When you have 15% unemployment it creates a lot of social ills," Halleck said. "I think drug abuse is one of them. And when you have to cut back on safety forces, like we have done [in Columbiana County] because of a decline in tax revenue, it has a trickle-down effect.

"However that is not an excuse for people that want to work. They need to get their skill sets in order. We've been working closely with the community colleges, universities and career vocational centers to find what they need."

One company spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said every exploration and production company he knew of had "an extremely robust drug policy program" in place.

"They usually use hair follicle testing, which goes back over three months," the spokesman said. "It is an area where the industry uses a lot of resources to try to ensure that those individuals they hire are not only qualified, but absolutely safe and of sound mind, in terms of weeding out any type of individuals involved in substance abuse."

The spokesman said his company wasn't active in Columbiana County and that he wasn't personally familiar with any specific substance abuse problems being reported there. But in areas where the company does operate, "it is always our policy to hire local people whenever possible. When they're qualified, and they meet the criteria, we absolutely want to hire local folks."

Halleck said no oil and gas official has ever approached him to say his county, or the region or state for that matter, has a drug problem.

"These are sophisticated business people," Halleck said. "They're not naive and they're drug testing people. Either you're going to pass [the drug test] and have the skill sets to get the job, or you're not. Ohio's got a huge population, plus Pennsylvania and West Virginia are right next door. There will be people that will get the jobs and the drug folks won't. It's that simple."