Posts Tagged ‘oil patch code blue’

Oil Patch Code Blue: Juhnke v. Marathon Oil

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

This report aired on Sept. 12, 2013 on Prairie Public. It’s part four of a four-part series on injuries and deaths in North Dakota’s oil patch. Todd Melby was the reporter. Photo of Dustin Bergsing’s H2S monitor courtesy of OSHA.

Made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

As oil field jobs go, Dustin Bergsing seemed to have a pretty safe one. He wasn’t swinging pipes on a drilling rig or working near big, moving trucks. He was a well watcher, monitoring tank levels near Mandaree.

Bergsing worked alone, often at nights, for a Marathon Oil contractor. Once every two hours, he climbed a ladder, walked across a metal catwalk, opened hatches and peeked inside a series of giant brown storage tanks that were filled with a mix of crude oil, gasses and frac water. If one of the tanks was nearing capacity, he changed the flow so another tank would start filling. One of the few dangers Bergsing faced was possible exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, also known as H2S gas. It’s an odorless, colorless gas that some wells naturally produce. It can kill a person. So Bergsing wore a yellow H2S monitor on his helmet to warn him of high levels of the deadly gas.

Still, something went wrong on the night of January 7, 2012. Just after midnight, Bergsing failed to respond to an alarm indicating a tank was almost full. So a co-worker came to check on him. The co-worker found Bergsing’s lifeless body on a catwalk.

“His death was reported to us as a fatality,” says Eric Brooks, the local director of OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “All right. I’ve got the case file here.” Brooks sent an investigator to determine how Bergsing died. The most likely cause of death seemed to be H2S poisoning. But it turns out Bergsing’s monitor was working and that wasn’t what killed the 21-year-old oil worker.

“The medical examiner’s identified professional opinion was that the hydrocarbons found in the victim’s blood did not appear to be work-related,” Brooks says.

After Dustin Bergsing died, his mother, Trista Juhnke, hired an attorney.

“Hi, my name is Fred Bremseth and I’m a personal injury trial lawyer,” says Fred Bremseth.

Bremseth agrees with one part of OSHA’s findings. “He had no other abnormal chemicals or drugs in his system. And the coroner’s report indicated that in fact the cause of death was exposure to hydrocarbons.”

 But Bremseth believes those hydrocarbon vapors were definitely work-related. You see, hydrocarbons come from natural gas, a byproduct of crude oil. If that gas isn’t captured or flared properly, it can fill the air and suffocate a person. That’s what he learned when a surprise witness who came forward after Bremeth sued against the Houston-based company.

“He had been fired from Marathon Oil. And of course, we asked him why,” Bremseth says.

The man, whom we’ll call Mr. X, has a chemistry degree and works as an environmental engineer. He didn’t want us to use his real name for fear of losing his current job. Mr. X was hired by Marathon Oil in October 2011 — about three months before Bergsing died. Soon, Mr. X noticed that large amounts of hydrocarbon vapors were leaking from oil storage tanks. In the past, Marathon routinely used two flare stacks per tank. Now, according to Mr. X, the company was just using one. As a result, that natural gas flowed into storage tanks like the ones where Bergsing worked.

 In a statement under oath, Mr. X described how he documented the problem with co-workers. He recorded the leaks with an infrared camera. He created a spreadsheet estimating the amount of the leaks. And …

“In fact they had gone and measured some of the gas levels,” Bremseth says. “And to his belief, those levels were not only toxic, but lethal.” So Mr. X began writing emails to supervisors. Here’s what he told Fred Bremseth in his sworn statement.

MR. X: “I asked why they had reduced the number of flares from two to one. I asked why the piping was undersized during the flowback. … They actually punished me because I wrote e-mails like that to them stating that there was compliance issues that they needed to address.”

BREMSETH: “What do you mean they punished you?”

MR. X: “They told me I couldn’t write any more e-mails. I was supposed to pick up a phone and not — not call on — or not write any more things like that, because they — lawyers could discover it.”

BREMSETH: “Really?”

MR. X: “That was their exact words.”

Still, Mr. X persisted. He continued to write emails, including one accusing his co-workers of “not living up to Marathon standards.” Says Bremseth, “Executives at Marathon Oil were concerned that what he was putting in writing could be discoverable by lawyers precisely in a situation like this.”

Voice of Todd Melby: “It sounds like they actually flew a lawyer from Houston to North Dakota to tell him how to write emails.”

Says Fred Bremseth: “That’s what the testimony was. They actually brought a corporate lawyer up from Texas and had put on a presentation for him trying to correct his ways o that he would write emails in the way they wanted him to do it.”

Mr. X’s 19-page statement also notes that a second oil field worker became dizzy on a Marathon-owned well in May 2012, four months after Bergsing died. Mr. X and two co-workers went out to the well, took measurements and concluded that “the oxygen content was below breathable. It had displaced the oxygen around the tanks. It was almost deadly.”

Says Fred Bremseth, “If you become overcome by the gasses, it’s too late.” Mr. X believes those circumstances were deadly for Dustin Bergsing. “Yep, that’s what got him,” Mr. X told Bremseth. In June 2012, less than one year after he started working at Marathon Oil, Mr. X was fired.

Marathon Oil executives refused to be interviewed about the case or Mr. X’s testimony. Instead, the company issued a statement. Marathon Oil says Mr. X was fired for “performance reasons” and that his statement to attorney Fred Bremseth was “grossly inaccurate and wholly without merit.” The company says Mr. X’s statement happened without its corporate lawyers in the room and therefore, it’s one-sided. I asked Bremseth about this last point.

“The court process certainly would allow Marathon Oil to take a comprehensive discovery deposition as part of the normal pre-trial procedures,” Bremseth says. “They could have done that if they wanted to.”

In its statement, Marathon Oil also says it “saddened by the loss of Dustin Bergsing” and called his death “tragic.”

Four months after Bergsing died and a second person became dizzy while working near oil storage tanks, Mr. X says Marathon finally took action when it began supplying its contractors and employees with air respirators. “Nobody should be going out to those well sites without self-contained breathing apparatus or supplied air respirators or not being there alone,” Bremseth says. 

The company eventually reached an out-of-court settlement with Dustin Bergsing’s family for an undisclosed sum of money.

More stories from the series are here:

Oil Patch Code Blue: Beautiful Man

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

This report aired Sept. 11, 2013 on Prairie Public. It’s part three of a four-part series on injuries and deaths in North Dakota’s oil patch. Todd Melby was the reporter.

Made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

I’m at a pizza place in Laurel, a small town just west of Billings.

Lacey Breding is at a booth with her daughter and a friend. Outside, the sun is mercilessly hot so everyone is wearing shorts. 

“Whatcha doing, monkey?” says Lacey Breding.

That’s Lacey. She’s watching McKinley, her toddler, fuss with the salt and pepper shakers.

For about a year, Lacey dated a man who worked in North Dakota’s oil fields. They met at a rodeo. She was just there because she had nothing else to do. And then she saw a cute guy with unruly brown hair tucked under his cowboy hat. “I knew his friends, but I’d never had seen him before,”  Breding says.

His name was Dustin Bergsing. The pair started talking, then flirting, then talking some more. Lacey says for the two days of that rodeo, they got to know each other pretty well. “It was like we’d known each other forever,” she says. “I remember going home and texting my little brother and saying, ‘I met this guy tonight and I’m going to marry him someday.’”

Shortly after they started dating, Lacey got pregnant. When McKinley was born, Dustin took the lead. “As soon as she was born, I was terrified of her,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. And he just stepped right in and took over changing diapers. Taught me how to swaddle her. He just stepped right up like he knew what he was doing.”

Lacey and Dustin, who were both just a couple years out of high school, made plans to spend the rest of their lives together. Dustin landed an oil field job that paid about $60,000 a year. They planned to marry. They planned to buy a house. They planned to open a business together.

Then on one cold January night last year, Dustin reported for work as a well watcher, He worked alone, monitoring fluid levels on giant tanks near Mandaree. He spent most of his time in a trailer. But every two hours, he climbed a ladder, walked across a catwalk and opened the hatches on multiple storage tanks containing oil, frac water and gases. Sometime around midnight, a co-worker called Dustin. When he didn’t respond, the worker drove to the site and found his lifeless body on a catwalk. 

Doctors say he died of “hydrocarbon poisoning due to the inhalation of petroleum vapor.”

He was 21.

“Ahhh, he was beautiful,” Breding says. “He was a beautiful man. He had brown hair. And it was always kinda shaggy, curly like my daughter’s. She has his curls. He had the cutest grin. You could not be mad at him if he had a smile on his face. And his face would turn beat red when he would laugh. I could just see it.”

It’s been more than a year and half since Dustin died. “I have people all the time asking me if I’ve started dating yet or if I’ve found somebody else,” she says. “It drives me crazy because I am so madly in love with that kid. Even now. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to.”

Says her friend Jason Bold, “She might sound like a broken record, but that’s her favorite record.” He’s wearing a tan cowboy hat and eating cheese sticks. He and his girlfriend used to hang out with Lacey and Dustin.

“He was just so awesome fun to be around all the time,” Bold says. “I mean, you can be around some people and after a day or two, you get sick and tired and bored of them. No. I want to be around you all day, every day. You crack me up. You make me giggle. He was so fun. Just thinking about him.”

After Dustin died, Jason was so upset to see Lacey alone with her daughter that he organized the Dustin Bergsing Memorial Bull Ride. The event was held at Miller’s Horse Palace near Laurel. “We had damn near 300 people show up at the horse palace, which is the largest, biggest event the horse palace ever had,: Bold says.

The bull ride raised several thousand dollars for Lacey and baby McKinley, so Jason lassoed a bunch of volunteers, offered up some prize money and put on the bull ride again this year. Another thing about Jason …

He used to work on drilling rigs in the Bakken. He didn’t like it. “They just care about that little green dollar,” Bold says. “That’s all they care about. They don’t care about who you are or where you’re from. All they care about is you get to work, you bust your ass,  and we want to hit TD. You know, total depth or bottom hole. We want to hit oil and move on to the next hole.”

After Dustin died, his mother sued Marathon Oil. They own the well where Dustin died. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money. As is typical in cases like these, Dustin’s mother and his fiancée, Lacey Breding, can’t discuss the details.

So they go on living.

Lacey carries around a soft cover photo album for McKinley. Inside are photos of a father McKinley will never see again.

More stories from the series are here:

Oil Patch Code Blue: Mad as Hell

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

This report aired on Sept. 10, 2013 on Prairie Public. It’s part two of a four-part series on injuries and deaths in North Dakota’s oil patch. Todd Melby was the reporter. Photo by Ben Garvin.

Made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

I spent Williston and wandering around the oil patch, talking with residents, newcomers and workers. We talked about all sorts of things. But when I spoke with workers, one subject kept popping up.

(Montage of worker voices: “You gotta be careful out there. A lot of people can get hurt over stupid stuff, not paying attention.”/“You never want to be the guy who turns down work or who doesn’t do something. It’s also that kind of attitude that makes things dangerous sometimes, right?”/“I had back surgery when I was 21. I crushed my arm in ’96 and they was going to cut my left arm off. But I still got it.”/”I know that I’ve seen people doing jobs without the right safety gear.”/“Everything out here has potential to seriously hurt you or a lot worse.”)

A lot worse is right.

Government accounts of fatal accidents make for grim reading. There are reports of men falling to their deaths, suffering deadly burns, getting struck in the head with giant pipes and crushed between forklifts and trucks.

As drilling peaked last year, so did oil field deaths.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of fatalities largely due to the dramatic increase in the oil and gas work,” says Eric Brooks, local director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That’s the federal agency responsible for workplace safety.

Last year in North Dakota, 14 people died while working in the oil fields. So far this year, another nine workers have been killed. That’s 23 dead oil workers in two years. That loss of human life recently has brought North Dakota unwelcome notoriety. In its rankings of the most dangerous places to work in America, the AFL-CIO labor union listed the state as number one at 12.4 deaths per 100,000 workers.

That’s higher than another big oil-producing state — Alaska — which in recent years had topped North Dakota in the rankings.

“You have a lot of new workers, a lot of new workers, a lot of young workers that are associated with the accidents,” says Brooks. “We have found training and communications violations, not universally, but consistently, among the accidents.”

The deaths have prompted OSHA to ramp up training efforts. In February, the agency sponsored a “Stand Down for Safety” meeting for oil companies doing work in the Bakken. Greg Baxter is regional administrator of OSHA. He spoke at the event. “My folks in Washington are essentially asking me, ‘What’s going on? How can you have that many fatalities?” Baxter says.

One of the things going on is that as the boom rolled through Williston, Watford City, Stanley and other towns in the west, OSHA’s Bismarck office failed to keep pace. In 2008 and 2009 — before the boom really got under way, OSHA had a team of seven senior investigators working in Bismarck. But as drilling rigs flooded the west with new workers and dangerous equipment, OSHA’s North Dakota staff became smaller and less experienced.

In 2010, it had six senior investigators. A year later, its staff shrunk to five. By 2012, the office again had a staff of seven — just like in the pre-boom year of 2008. But with a difference. Instead of seven senior investigators, it employed just one. The other six staffers had a lot less experience. And three were trainees.

“For those particular years when it was quote-unquote lean, we were bringing in additional compliance officers to help us conduct inspections,” Brooks says.

Brooks downplays the importance of on-the-job experience. He says an inspector’s knowledge of a particular industry is more important. So I asked him: how many of the inspectors working in Bismarck have oil and gas expertise.

“Now? All of them,” Brooks says. “All of them have been through well training and are actually card-carrying well control compliance officers.”

“How about 2011?” I ask.

“2011?” Brooks says. “You’re asking me to think here. Depending on what time you’re talking in 2011, it could have been three or four.”

That’s a problem, says Bill Kojola. He’s a health and safety expert at the AFL-CIO. “It’s absolutely crucial that inspectors understand the industry so that they have a very good sense of what the hazards are,” Kojola says. One of Kojola’s jobs at the union is to work on its annual job safety report titled, “Death on the Job.” It’s filled with all sorts of statistical analysis, including the number of years it would take OSHA to conduct surprise inspections at every U.S. workplace. According to the report, it would take OSHA 93 years to visit every work site in North Dakota.

“It’s really ridiculous when you think about it. An employer can say what are my chances of getting a random inspection by OSHA? Well, the chances are slim, very slim,” says Kojola.

Last year, North Dakota made just 25 impromptu visits at oil industry work sites. This year, it ramped up inspections. In April, Eric Brooks ordered his inspectors to roam the western plains. “The nature of this inspection was, our guys are out in the field, if you see a rig, you’re stopping,” he says. In one month, the group made 56 inspections — double the number for all of last year.

Perhaps the state’s OSHA office is beginning to take to heart the words of its regional boss, Greg Baxter. “We got to get mad as hell and we got to stop this,” he says.

More stories from the series are here:

Oil Patch Code Blue: There’s the Pager

Monday, September 9th, 2013

This report aired Sept. 9, 2013 on Prairie Public. It’s part one of a four-part series on injuries and deaths in North Dakota’s oil patch. Story and photo by Todd Melby.

Made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

I’m in downtown Killdeer trying to cross the street with Ann Hafner. She’s the ambulance director.

“Right over here,” she says. “I don’t want us in the back of that new rig as much as I like it.”

Big semis are everywhere.

“This one is going to stop,” she says. ” Thank you.”

(Sound of truck honking.)

“Thanks,” Todd Melby says.

Killdeer, a little town out west, used to be a quiet place. But that was before the oil boom. “Yeah, if you were looking for a changing ambulance service, you found it,” says Hafner.

Hafner is a 51-year-old paramedic. She’s trim, short and full of energy. Before becoming a paramedic, she was a mom and a volunteer EMT. After her daughter graduated from high school, Hafner hit the books, earned a paramedic’s license and in just two years, she’s in charge of things here.

“This is going to be our new combination office and garage,” Hafner says. “We got a four-stall garage going in. We only have three ambulances. We are concerned about the future in five years. Five years ago we wouldn’t have thought we needed two.”

In 2010, the Census Bureau counted 751 people living here. Back then, Killdeer was best known as a rodeo town. The place to buy beer here is Lariat Liquors. Its high school sports teams are known as the Cowboys.

Nearby drilling has likely tripled the town’s population.

Before the boom, the Killdeer Area Ambulance Service averaged one or two calls a week. Now it’s one or two calls every day. Before the boom, everyone who responded to ambulance calls was a volunteer. Now the nonprofit service couldn’t survive without paid staffers like Hafner.

The calls they’re getting have changed too. Before the boom, the ambulance service mostly helped out car and farm accident victims and those with medical emergencies. Now? There’s lots of oil field accidents. “People fall off of things,” says Hafner. “People get crushed by things. People get hit by things. Things blow up.”

Those accidents result in all kinds of injuries, including concussions, broken bones, piercings and something called “degloving.” Says Hafner, “A degloving is where the skin is grabbed by something and removed from the body. So what you have is a head or a face or an arm or a leg with the skin peeled off.”

Hafner and her colleagues aren’t just dealing with gruesome injuries. Some of the most dangerous situations they face in the oil fields involve H2S also known as hydrogen sulfide gas, a colorless, odorless substance that can be deadly. “If we’re called to a scene and somebody is unconscious for an unknown reason, nobody knows why, we have to assume that’s what they’re unconscious from,” she says. “And if we get out without the proper protection, we’ll be unconscious from it too.”

Oil field accidents aren’t the only reason for the surge in emergency calls. More trucks are on the road, resulting in more accidents. “A lot of these guys work longer hours straight with less sleep than they ever have before,” Hafner says. “And they have to drive some of them quite a distance to where they’re sleeping. So you add a two-hour drive a day on top of working 12 hours in the heat like you’re not used to doing. If you ever had any inclination to high blood pressure, you’re going to have it now. So we have a lot of heart-related medical calls.”

Killdeer isn’t the only boom town where this is happening. More and more people with traumatic injuries are being admitted to hospitals in western North Dakota. Tom Nehring works at the state health department. He’s in charge of emergency services. “We’re seeing exponential growth in trauma patients, exponential growth in EMS calls, exponential growth in the number of patients that come into the hospital,” he says.”

Nehring’s use of the word “exponential” isn’t hyperbole. Since 2008, hospital trauma admissions have more than doubled in Dickinson, tripled in Williston and Watford City and quadrupled in Tioga. “Can the system handle the demand?” he asks. “At times, I believe that’s questionable.” The state is rich in oil revenues. North Dakota currently has $4.7 billion in the bank. That’s billion with a B. About one-fifth of that money is being sent back to the west to expand roads and build stuff. In fact, Killdeer’s new ambulance was purchased with an oil impact grant.

I asked Nehring if there was more the state could do to help nonprofit ambulance services like the one in Killdeer. “One of the things they could use is some staffing money to actually hire some full-time people,” he says. And just as soon as he said it, Nehring backed off.

If we were going to replace all the volunteers in the state of North Dakota with paid people that would cost us $31 million a year,” Nehring says.

$31 million a year. That’s less than one percent of $4.7 billion. Again, Tom Nehring. “I don’t think it’s just the state’s responsibility to run an EMS system. You don’t find that model anyplace else,” he says.

Back in Killdeer, I asked Ann Hafner, the ambulance services director, how things are holding up. “Do you have the resources to do what you need to do?” I asked.

“No. Spirit wise and drive and desire, yes we do,” Hafner says. “We have all the drive and enthusiasm of any group of people I’ve ever seen. We don’t have enough people. We don’t have enough equipment. We don’t have enough money.” But Hafner and local officials keep trying. Local taxes are enough to pay for two full-time paramedics and one full-time EMT. A few other medical personnel get paid to come in every now and then. The rest of the time, Killdeer relies on volunteers.

“Our volunteer base has gotten really low,” Hafner says. “But since April we’ve picked up 15 new volunteers so we’re building it back, gradually.” Near the end of my ambulance service visit, I sit down in the offices to talk to Chris Jeske. She’s a board member here.

“These guys have had anywhere from one run a day up to five or six runs a day,” Jeske says.

(Sound of pager beeping.)

“There’s the pager,” Jeske says.

Pager Announcement: “Killdeer Ambulance. Killdeer Ambulance. Please respond to a semi rollover, possibly an oil tanker.”

Hafner springs into action.

“Yeah, can you meet Aaron at the bay and bring six-seven,” Hafner says. “He’s on his way back from Manning. OK, thank you. Beth and Aaron are going to meet up here. Todd, I’ll talk to you later. Welcome to my life!”

More stories from the series are here: