The Bakken oil boom has been a serial killer. Big oil companies have largely written the rules governing their own accountability for accidents, potentially putting workers at risk.
In the early evening of Sept. 14, 2011, at a bend in the Missouri River in North Dakota, Brendan Wegner, 21, was scrambling down a derrick ladder when the oil well he was working on exploded. Rescuers found his body pinned under a heap of melted steel pipes. His charred hands were recovered later, still gripping the derrick ladder. It was his first day on the rig.
Wegner’s co-workers—Ray Hardy, Michael Twinn and Doug Hysjulien—survived the initial blast. But Hardy, whose nails were bent back by the explosion, exposing the stark white bones of his fingers, died the next day of his burns. Twinn would have his lower legs amputated, and dogged by post-traumatic stress disorder, he killed himself in October 2013. Hysjulien, who suffered debilitating third-degree burns over half of his body, is the lone survivor.
To this day, the explosion—pieced together from interviews, court documents and federal and local reports—remains the worst accident in the expansive Bakken oil fields since the boom began in 2006.
On average, someone dies about every six weeks from an accident in the Bakken—at least 74 since 2006, according to an exclusive analysis by Politico Magazine partner Reveal, part of The Center for Investigative Reporting. This is the first comprehensive accounting of such deaths using data obtained from Canadian and U.S. regulators. The number of deaths is likely even higher because federal regulators don’t have a systematic way to record oil- and gas-related deaths, and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t include certain fatalities, such as those of independent contractors.
Across the Bakken, deeply entrenched corporate practices and weak federal oversight inoculate energy producers against responsibility when workers are killed or injured, while shifting the risk to others. Oil companies also offer financial incentives to workers for speeding up production—potentially jeopardizing their safety—and avoid paying the full cost of settlements to workers and their families when something goes wrong by shielding themselves behind a web of companies.
Jebadiah Stanfill was working on an oil rig in North Dakota in September 2011 when he was jolted by a deafening boom in the distance. Less than a mile away, another rig had exploded. Credit: Courtesy of Jebadiah Stanfill
An estimated 7.4 billion barrels of undiscovered oil is sitting in the U.S. portion of the Bakken and Three Forks formations of the Williston Basin, a 170,000-square-mile area that stretches from southern Saskatchewan, Canada, to northern South Dakota. North Dakota now ranks just behind Texas with the second-largest oil reserve in the U.S. Both states now account for half of all the crude oil production in the country.
OSHA officials say they are concerned that plummeting oil prices in the past year are prompting energy producers to shortchange safety even more. To others, the deaths and injuries would be preventable if not for a combination of greed, inadequate training and lack of government oversight.
“These workers are paying for cheap gas with their lives and their limbs,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO.