Twenty inspectors with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have filed a grievance with the state, alleging the agency’s plans to hire additional Marcellus Shale inspectors are unfair because the new hires will be paid more and have fewer prerequisites.

Gordon Simmons, field organizer for UE Local 170 West Virginia Public Workers Union, told NGI’s Shale Daily that the grievance — its first as a group against the DEP — was filed last week with the West Virginia Public Employees Grievance Board (PEGB) in Charleston.

“At this point we have 20 officially filing,” Simmons said Wednesday. “But I suspect from the number of contacts we’re getting that that number will grow.”

Simmons said the inspectors were upset over a recent job posting for oil and gas inspectors on the state’s Division of Personnel website. The starting salary for the new jobs is $35,000, and applicants with two years of relevant experience in the industry are not required to have a degree. It was not clear how many positions were available.

“Most of the environmental inspectors started at around $31,000,” Simmons said. “There’s folks that have been with the agency for a very long time in various program areas — coal, water, waste — but they all had to start at $31,000 and they had to have a four-year degree. Several have graduate degrees in addition to that, in an area related to the subject.”

Simmons added that current inspectors had to complete a one-year training program, have had restrictions placed on where they can live, and are assigned to cover several counties.

“That’s a heavy case load,” Simmons said, adding that the vacancy rate among environmental inspectors at the DEP has climbed to more than 10% as a result. “Then this happens. It’s adding insult to injury on top of their ordinary situation. They filed the grievance wanting, at the very least, to have the starting pay for all of inspectors set at the same $35,000 level.”

Simmons said the union has approached the DEP over waiving the first two steps of a three-step grievance process, and proceeding directly to a hearing before a PEGB judge. “We’re vetting that with the DEP secretary to see if they want to do that,” he said. “We’re still waiting to hear back.”

DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco declined to comment on the grievance, citing the matter as a personnel issue, but said the agency was open to discussions with the union on the PEGB waiver.

“The grievance process allows for the two parties to agree on what level a grievance will be initially heard,” Cosco said Wednesday. “If the representative of those who filed the grievance submits an official request for a specific level, the agency will consider that request.”

Although the inspectors are union members, they have no collective bargaining agreement or contract with the state. Asked if some inspectors were afraid to join the grievance because of a threat of retaliation from the DEP, Simmons said, “That’s a real possibility. The ones who have filed have sort of said ‘the hell with this,’ ‘there’s safety in numbers,’ and ‘we’ve been taking it on the chin for years now.'”

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a landmark Marcellus Shale regulatory reform bill last December (see Shale Daily, Dec. 27, 2011). The bill’s permitting fees on natural gas operators were expected to produce $2.4 million annually for the DEP, which the agency said it would use to hire additional inspectors and permit reviewers.