Special Report: Danger in the Bakken-Part 1


Jan 30, 2014 9:48 PM by Victoria Fregoso - Q2 News

BILLINGS - The Bakken 0ilfield is an opportunity for the blue collar worker to make a six-figure income.

"There are plentiful people coming that are strong, healthy and are willing to take minus 20 degree weather and be out there drilling for the almighty black gold," said Bob van der Valk, Senior Editor of the Bakken Oil Business Journal.

A report by the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division shows there are nearly 200 active drilling rigs along the western part of the state.

In comparison, neighboring eastern Montana houses only ten active drilling rigs.

Less than 300 miles away, the impact of the Bakken is felt in Yellowstone County. Many call central Montana home and make the commute east.

Locations and numbers aside, there's something all rigs have in common.

"It's just dangerous work," van der Valk said. "But they're used to it and they're willing to accept that because the wages are high."

It's high-paying work that comes with great risk.

"It involves many steps and each one of them, if someone takes shortcuts, could cause injuries or worse," van der Valk said.

Fires, being struck by equipment, electrocution and falling are the main killers of oil field workers.

When an oil rig employee dies on the job, the company usually pays for funeral expenses along with life insurance benefits to the family.

North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance keeps track of those fatalities. A look at the numbers over the past four years shows oil field fatalities reached an all time high of 20 deaths in 2013. There were 14 fatalities in 2012, five in 2011 and three in 2010.

With fewer oil rigs in eastern Montana, the number of oil field deaths sits at zero. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration of Montana keeps those rigs under close watch.

"Last year we conducted 14 inspections, approximately, in an attempt to be proactive to find safety and health hazards, identify them, get them corrected, before individuals are injured," said Jeff Funke, OSHA Area Director in Billings.

The number of oil field injuries in North Dakota is high. According to North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance, more than 3,200 injuries were reported in 2013. This number is a significant increase from the 700 reported just four years ago.

"If the rules that the oil companies themselves make, if they follow them, it really eliminates and minimizes most of the serious risk," said Cliff Edwards, an attorney with the Edwards, Frickle and Culver law firm in Billings. "All kinds of oil can be drilled, recovered and commerce can go on. But workers don't have to pay this kind of price, if they'll just follow their own safety rules."

Bakken oil production currently sits at 1 million barrels per day. Oil field experts predict production will double and reach 2 million barrels per day in five years.

"We'll see the injuries and other deaths increase as well," van der Valk said. "It's unfortunate, and we'll probably have to get more people involved in overseeing and being sensitive to safety and it's being adhered to."

Despite hazards, it doesn't deter the thousands chasing the fortune found right in our backyard.

It's difficult to understand the depth of the issue through numbers. So in part two of this special report, Victoria Fregoso will introduce us to Gary Roberts, 33, a Billings man who was badly injured on a North Dakota oil rig in 2010.

Emergency crews who responded to the call were sure Roberts would not survive.

With emotions running high, Roberts reunited with those EMT's this week.

"I never thought I'd see him again, even if he was alive" said Lisa Valandra, one of the EMT's who assisted Roberts the day of the accident. "You know, you never get to see your patients again."

Q2 was there to capture the moment. Watch KTVQ News at 5:30 p.m. on Friday to hear more about what happened to Roberts, his recovery and see the emotional reunion.


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