Stories in the Series


A death in the Bakken: Worker's family rejects drug conclusion

WATFORD CITY, N.D. -- One thing is clear: Brandon Belk should have been wearing an oxygen mask. After that, there's a long list of questions. It starts with a big one. Why did he die? There's the mix of solvents and petroleum gunk he was breathing while cleaning a frack tank two days before his death in July 2013. When federal worker safety inspectors showed up, they found the working conditions dangerous. But there's also the traces of methadone -- a potent and often abused painkiller -- found in his bloodstream.


Poisoned by the shale? Investigations leave questions in oil tank deaths

KILLDEER, N.D. -- Dustin Bergsing was 21 and six weeks a father when he arrived here at Marathon Oil Corp.'s Buffalo 34-12H well pad, a square of red gravel carved into a low hill. By dawn, he was dead. A co-worker found him shortly after midnight, slumped below the open hatch of a tank of Bakken Shale crude oil. It was Bergsing's job to pop the hatch and record how much was inside. An autopsy found he died of "hydrocarbon poisoning due to inhalation of petroleum vapors."


Drilling's worker safety record bodes ill for public health

Worker safety is perhaps the only place where the oil and gas industry's safety record can be lined up next to other industries and compared. It's gotten better, but with a fatality rate that topped coal mining's in 2012, drilling stacks up badly.

Public health and worker safety experts say that's a bad sign for people living amid frack tanks, rigs and truck traffic that come with the country's drilling boom.


'That stuff can get you so fast' -- deadly gas on the rise in oil fields

ODESSA, Texas -- Elaine Beadle initially thought the odor creeping into her home on this city's west side was a sewer leak. It started about the time she moved in four years ago -- a smell like rotten eggs. Sometimes it got so bad her eyes burned. She soon learned the real source: a tank battery that collects oil and gas from wells scattered throughout the vacant land and small homes near the intersection of University Drive and Loop 338.

The gas in the tank battery contains more than 300 times the lethal level of hydrogen sulfide, a common byproduct of oil production in West Texas.


The drilling industry's explosion problem

Temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit froze the valve on the back of Greg Bish's frack truck. To thaw it, he fetched a blowtorch and put the 4-inch flame to the metal. The explosion blew him 75 feet, over a 7-foot-tall barbed-wire fence, and killed him.

It might seem dangerous to apply a propane torch to the back of a large metal tank holding natural gas production waste, as Bish did that morning in 2010 just outside Elderton, Pa. But in the oil and gas industry, it's not unusual.

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Since 2009, oil and gas production has had more deaths from fires and explosion than any private industry. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.


About this report

An investigation of the drilling industry's worker safety record and what it means for those living amid the boom.


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Death on the gas field illustrates high risks of the rush to drill

Oil and gas sites are among the most dangerous workplaces in the country, according to federal labor statistics and an ongoing EnergyWire investigation. Multiple pressures weigh on the people who work in this high-risk, high-reward industry, including the need to produce on schedule and keep costs down. The company men and their workers have a "get 'er done" attitude that sometimes leads to safety compromises that go unnoticed and undocumented. Sometimes events tilt toward tragedy.