MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Beth Bertram remembers when the rumbling yellow buses that carry Marshall County's children to and from school ruled the narrow country roads in Northern West Virginia.
That was before natural gas companies began flocking to the region to sink wells in the previously untapped Marcellus shale field -- and using those same rural routes to reach their drilling pads.
"We used to be the biggest a thing on the road, and if we connected something, we'd come out ahead," said Bertram, the district's transportation supervisor. "Now they're just as big as we are."
Throughout Marshall and Wetzel counties, the rush on the massive, mile-deep gas reserve is forcing drivers to find ways to share roads that can barely accommodate two small cars. Just this week, Chesapeake Appalachia -- the biggest drilling presence in the region -- met with school officials in Ohio County to first identify bus routes, then determine how to avoid them at the right times.
"It's just something we're going to have in our area," Bertram said. "In the southern coalfields, it's coal trucks. Here, we're dealing with the gas industry."
The Marcellus shale sprawls under Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, and drilling is in high gear in West Virginia's northern counties.
The gas is locked in tightly compacted rock, and freeing it requires unconventional horizontal drilling technologies and vast amounts of water. That means a never-ending convoy of rigs and trucks carrying equipment, water, sand and more over roads never intended to withstand the weight or wear and tear.
As the industry began to take hold, drivers of trucks and school buses began complaining of near-misses and parents and transportation coordinators worried about safety.
Chesapeake responded by hiring local people to drive escort cars for buses on two heavily traveled routes.
"When the school buses are on the road, Chesapeake's trucks park. They stop. They wait. They hold up. They don't leave the staging area," said Bill Hughes, who belongs to the watchdog organization Wetzel County Action Group. "Chesapeake, to its credit, is leading the way in one aspect of best management practices."
The problem, Hughes said, is the proliferation of smaller companies, whose presence continues to grow. Chesapeake, he said, offers them a model to follow.
"We wanted to make sure there would never be an accident," Chesapeake spokeswoman Stacey Brodak said.
"We're talking about two roads, specifically, that were incredibly narrow and long, and they didn't offer any place to pull over or turn around," she said. "School buses are not allowed to back up, so if they were to meet another vehicle, it would be very difficult for both of them."