Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
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Al: From The Center for Investigative and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Speaker 2: Our country is facing serious energy problems.
Al: In the '70s, the energy crisis brought America to its knees. We had to come up with a solution, so visionaries in the oil industry drove their teams hard.
Speaker 3: It takes insane amount of pressure, it takes insane amount of chemicals and all kinds of processes to get that product out of the ground. With everything that has create value, I would say probably comes great risk, that becomes incredibly deadly for us, not only oil and gas industries.
Al: America is now in the midst of an energy boom, but at what cost?
Speaker 4: Oklahoma City 911. What's your emergency?
Speaker 5: I thought I felt an earthquake.
Speaker 4: Yes, sir. We had one.
Speaker 6: Did we just have an earthquake
Speaker 7: Yes, we did, sir
Speaker 8: Yes, ma'am we had an earthquake. Are you okay?
Al: Oklahoma now has more seismic activity than California, in part because of oil drilling.
Speaker 9: Is there going to be more
Speaker 10: We have no idea.
Al: The true cost of the power struggle. That's coming up next on Reveal.
Speaker 11: Reveal is supported by truebill.com. If you're like most people, you're paying every month for a service you don't use. Truebill is the easiest way to find, track and cancel subscription services and recurring bills. In less than a minute, Truebill finds out who's billing you every month and gives you back control of your money. Truebill users save an average of $516 per year by cancelling unwanted subscriptions with a single click. Truebill is a free service. Sign up today at truebill.com and see how much you can save.
Al: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Today, we're doing something a little bit different. We're here back stage at the Flight Deck, a theater in Oakland, California where actors are warming up to perform North by Inferno. Let me back up just a little bit. North by Inferno was a play written by Jon Bernson based on our investigation into the deadly working conditions in the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota. We've been doing this for a couple of years, working with playwrights to turn our real-life stories into stage productions.
John: Right now, I'm just setting props and making sure everything is set back here. Just making sure everything is set for quick changes because I have 4 in the shell where I have to jump in and out of Rey and Jessie.
Al: That is actor John Terrell. You head the original reporting we did on the story.
John: That would really start [inaudible 00:02:31] me. That was the deciding factor for me to do the piece.
Al: He'll be playing Jebadiah Jessie Stanfill who's working nearby when a rig exploded in 2011. It's a dramatic story about lax oversight and the pressure to drill more oil faster in the Bakken. We'll begin to that story later this hour as we revisit stories about the consequences of America's recent energy boom. Since our next story first aired in June, we've gotten some big news. President Obama rejected the Keystone Pipeline deal.
P. Obama: The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not serve the national interests of the United States. I agree with that decision.
Al: Since then, Congress lifted a 40-year ban on crude oil exports, all of this means there's more oil that needs to get to market some other way like by train. These days, there's 40 times more crude oil travelling through the country than just 8 years ago, but people normally don't know when those trains are rolling through their communities. That has them worried because much of the crude oil they're carrying is more volatile. Last year, 5 oil trains derailed and caught fire.
Ashley Ahearn of KUOW in Seattle and the public media collaborative EarthFix reports on a grassroots effort to keep track of those oil trains, and it isn't easy.
Ashley: It's not every Tuesday night that you get to spend sitting in a car with a complete stranger counting trains, but that's what I'm doing with Dean Smith.
Dean: I like to park right here when I'm watching trains because I can see the bridge up here and I can see the tracks down below.
Ashley: Dean began noticing those mile-long oil trains coming through town. It frightened him. Washington is one of the biggest oil refining states in the country, with 1.5 million barrels arriving here each week.
Dean: I was sitting here once and an oil train came through, and I did walk up right next to it. This sense of power of hundreds of those huge cars each carrying 30,000 gallons of crude oil whistling by me, I was scared.
Ashley: Dean tells me he's worried that one of those trains could catch fire or explode in his community, just like what happened 2 years ago in rural Quebec, 47 people were killed and most of a small town was burnt to the ground. When Dean tried to learn more about the trains, what routes they were taking, how many of them there were, what kind of oil they were carrying, local officials told him they didn't have that information. Dean decided to find out himself. He organized 30 volunteers to take shifts counting trains around the clock for a week straight. That's what we're doing tonight.
Dean: A passenger train and it's northbound. That's all I need.
Ashley: All of the volunteers upload their train sightings into a website Dean made. There are small placards on the train cars with numbers on them. It's a code for what the train is carrying.
Dean: I hit Send. It sent my data to the database. Now, it's in. It's recorded. That's what I'm here for, data.
Ashley: Dean is retired now, but he was a college student back in the days of Sputnik and the Cold War. He double majored in math and physics which led to an interesting career with the National Security Agency.
Dean: The work that I was doing there was all top secret. It involved going somewhere in the world and collecting some data and analyzing it about some Soviet activities. Enough said. I mean this counting trains is pretty pedestrian. It's simple and it's profound in a way. If you can show relationships that can't be denied, then you can make some progress. I learned that in NSA.
Ashley: I contacted the NSA to verify that Dean worked there. A spokesperson told me the NSA doesn't confirm what it calls agency affiliation. Dean and I listened to the rain on the roof of the car and wait for an oil train. No sign of one yet, but Dean is a patient and persistent man. When he started the train watch, Dean was able to gather more information about oil train traffic in 1 week than the railroads had given the state in the 3 years oil trains have been coming here. That information is really important. Dave Byers is the head of oil spill response for the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Dave: It gives us an idea of what to prepare for, what the risk is, the routes that are taken.
Ashley: There have been some close calls already. One morning, I woke up and checked the news on my phone like I do every morning, and I saw that an oil train had derailed right here in Seattle at 1:50 a.m. I jumped on my motorcycle and raced down to the scene. Here's the story I filed for KUOW.
I'm standing on the Magnolia Bridge looking down as men in yellow coats are trying to get a derailed oil train back on track here. It looks like there's at least 1 train car, slightly off kilter on the track and they're moving along the track with an orange or yellow tractor trying to put each one back on there.
Seattle was lucky that morning. The 3 train cars that derailed weren't punctured and no oil was spilled, but Dave Byers says that the company, BNSF Railway, didn't handle the situation properly. BNSF notified Dave Byers and his team almost 1.5 hours after the derailment.
Dave: The dispatcher from the rail company told our responder that there had been a derailment and there were no hazardous materials involved and there was no potential for hazardous materials to be involved.
Ashley: Byers' team wasn't told there was volatile crude oil in that train until 5 hours after the derailment. It was the oil refinery that told them, not BNSF Railway.
Dave: We immediately sent responders down there to assess the situation. When we arrived, we didn't find a BNSF representative on scene.
Ashley: Byers' team did see workers welding on damaged oil cars. When asked, the workers said they didn't know what was in the cars. The area wasn't fenced off from the public and North Dakota crude can catch fire and explode at temperatures as low as 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
Dave: We became concerned because people were wondering off the street and taking selfies of themselves next to the railcars, and there was no preparing for the potential that one of those cars could actually start leaking.
Ashley: There were people welding on cars full of oil that has a flashpoint of 74 degrees?
Ashley: Last year, state regulators recommended that BNSF Railway be fined up to $700,000 for failing to quickly report spills of hazardous materials. The company is appealing. I contacted BNSF Railway about the Seattle derailment. Spokeswoman Courtney Wallace emailed the response. She said, "BNSF had its hazardous materials team in place quickly to evaluate the situation, and that 'this derailment did not cause a release, at any point, nor was there a threat of a release.'"
Communities along the railroad tracks are worried. Last year, several hundred people packed into the Anacortes City Hall to get information from oil companies and BNSF Railway. Anacortes is north of Seattle on the coast. There are 2 refineries here that receive oil by rail from North Dakota.
Speaker 17: I want to thank you guys for coming today. This is obviously a very important issue to our community an...
Ashley: Just that morning, a BNSF oil train had derailed and caught fire in North Dakota. No one in the audience was allowed to talk. They could just submit written questions. The oil refineries talked about the safety precautions they have at their facilities to prevent a spill. They talked about their commitment to getting newer oil train cars. Courtney Wallace, the spokeswoman with BNSF Railway was there. She talked about the company's commitment to safety. She said that BNSF believes that every accident is preventable. I walked over to her after the event.
Can I ask you a couple of questions?
Ashley: Can you tell me how much information is the railroad sharing right now with first responders?
Courtney: We have always provided information to first responders, emergency managers, about historically what has moved through their towns. We're always cognizant of what information is shared because we don't want to see an incident happen that involves terrorism or anyone else who might have that kind of frame of mind.
Ashley: BNSF Railway has said that information about oil train movements is proprietary, and sharing it could put the company at a competitive disadvantage. It took a federal emergency order to force BNSF to share oil train traffic information with states. Washington State is going 1 step further. The legislature just passed a new law that requires more detailed information about oil train traffic. It forces the refineries to share that information since the state doesn't have the authority to get it from the railroads. They're regulated federally.
Jessyn: We're going to learn, I think, how much we don't know by having some of this information. We may find that there's gaps and we need to do more.
Ashley: Jessyn Farrell is a state representative from Seattle and a Democrat. She was the lead author of the new legislation. I met up with her at a local park.
Jessyn: We're going to get the information. I don't really care who gives it to us as long as it's good information and it stands in court because we need that information now.
Ashley: Farrell's bill passed with bipartisan support after a long fight and heavy lobbying from the oil industry and the railroad.
Dean Smith, the train watcher near Seattle, says that no matter how hard the railroad fights the new law, it's pretty hard to hide an oil train. At this point in his shift, we've been waiting for 4 hours by the tracks north of Seattle. Still, no oil train. The street light reflects off Dean's glasses in the dark and I can see the shadows gathered in the furrow of his brow, and then...
Dean: There's something coming. Yeah.
Ashley: The orange BNSF engine emerges from the tunnel and then the black, hill-shaped oil cars one after another. The minutes tick by car after car after car. I watched Dean Smith standing in the rain, shoulders hunched.
Dean: Sometimes I wonder why fight it and why not just move. That'd be an easy thing to do. I think we have to fight and I would like to see citizens, groups acting like this all over the country. That's a form of checks and balances that we can create. All it takes is a few people.
Al: Ashley Ahearn is a reporter for EarthFix, a public media collaboration that covers science, energy and the environment in the Pacific Northwest. She's based at KUOW in Seattle.
With the Keystone...
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Speaker 1: With the Keystone Pipeline off the table, many think even more new oil terminals will be built in Washington State. Ones that increase the number of oil trains passing through. It could also lead to renewed drilling and another boom in the Bakken Oil Fields. The production has actually cooled off in recent years and that makes the play we're settling in to see about conditions in the Bakkan all the more relevant. More about that when we come back on Reveal.
Byard Duncan: Hey there, Byard Duncan here. I'm Reveal's Community Manager. I'm here to make sure you're getting all the information you need from us. I also write our newsletter The Weekly Reveal, it comes out every Monday. For the past few months, we've been working with you to make it shine. Now it's filled with the things you told us you wanted more of. Source documents, perspectives from reporters, even occasional newsroom antics. If you love our investigations, you won't want to miss The Weekly Reveal. It doesn't just deliver fresh stories, it puts them into context. To sign up, head over to revealnews.org/newsletter. Again, that's revealnews.org/newsletter.
Al Letson: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Jesse: When I see my bare hands, I flash back to what I experienced that day.
Al Letson: We're watching a play based on reporting we did last year about North Dakota, where hydraulic fracturing opened up huge new reservoirs of oil and gas.
Speaker 2: You'll be spending most of your time aloft, but whenever you're down here on the rig floor, just keep an eye out for whatever is going on up above.
Speaker 3: Sometimes a tool falls from a counter [inaudible 00:16:00]. It will put you in the hospital.
Speaker 2: Yeah, keep your feet off from underneath the vertical rods. They fall [inaudible 00:16:04] past right through your boot.
Al Letson: The work is dangerous. It moves fast. The Bakken oil fields became one of the deadliest places in the country for workers. At least 74 people have died there in the last decade. This play is about the worst accident since the start of the Bakken boom.
Speaker 2: Run, go, run!
Speaker 3: Shut down that motor or it's going to [inaudible 00:16:27].
Speaker 2: Shut down that motor!
Speaker 3: Leave it's! It's going to blow!
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:16:31]
Al Letson: This production was based on reporting by Reveal's Jennifer Gollan. Her story first aired in June and it started with Jen telling us about the accident that was dramatized in the play.
Jennifer Gollan: The accident happened back in 2011. It was actually the deadliest accident in the Bakken since the start of the boom. To explain what happened, let me introduce you to Jebediah Jesse Stanfill. He often goes by Jesse.
Jesse: Taken off my work gloves and putting on the gloves that I use when I'm going to deal with food.
Jennifer Gollan: Jesse used to work in North Dakota, but now he lives in Alabama. He's a guy in his 30s, he has a black goatee and he often wears a trucker's cap. The only sign that there's something a little bit different about him are these gloves that he wears.
Jesse: Three pairs that I typically have around me. My work pair. My everyday pair which are just the pair of those, but clean. Then, my rubber gloves.
Jennifer Gollan: We met Jesse at his grandmother's house and he was making lunch with his gloves on. He wears them almost all the time. When he's around the house, when he's playing with his kids. He wears them because he says that looking at his hands triggers one of his worst memories.
Jesse: How can a simple thing like looking at your hands or washing your hands send you completely [inaudible 00:17:56] back to that day? The scenery changes. It is as if I'm there, not right here, making chicken and dumplings. It [ruins 00:18:06] my life.
Al Letson: What happened to him?
Jennifer Gollan: In 2011, Jesse went to work in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. He had a second son on the way and like a lot of young men, he was drawn there for the adventure and the money. One day, Jesse's near the top of this oil rig and suddenly hears this huge boom from less than a mile away.
Jesse: I saw the 350 foot inferno, kind of [an orange 00:18:33] cloud, black smoke.
Jennifer Gollan: He scrambles to the bottom of the rig and he sees that it's the neighboring rig that's on fire. He grabs a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit and jumps in his truck and races over with two co-workers.
Al Letson: What does he see when he actually gets to the rig?
Jennifer Gollan: The scene is ... I mean, he gets there, is almost post apocalyptic. There's smoke and flames everywhere and there are these workers totally dazed and charred black.
Jesse: I've seen a man walking in the field and he was burned and all he had on was his underwear holding it up. He just sat there over there.
Jennifer Gollan: Jesse heads in that direction. He learns that one guy has died in the explosion and he finds two other men very badly burned. He helps lift one of them up and when he does, the man's burnt skin comes off in his hands.
Jesse: I looked down at my hands and I tried to get it off of me by rubbing it on my chest.
Jennifer Gollan: That's why Jesse wears the gloves. That memory of the man's skin coming off in his palms. He just can't shake it.
Jesse: The only thing I have found is wearing these stupid gloves. These gloves that people constantly ask me why I'm wearing them.
Jennifer Gollan: I asked them what do you tell them? He said this thing that I'll never forget.
Jesse: Watch [inaudible 00:20:04] burn and see what you do.
Al Letson: It sounds like a lot of people were hurt that day.
Jennifer Gollan: You're right. Two men were killed and one was so badly burned he had to have his lower legs amputated. He ended up killing himself two years later. Only one man survived.
Al Letson: Who's responsible for it? Who owns this site?
Jennifer Gollan: A company called Oasis Petroleum North America owns the site. They're one of the biggest producers in the Bakken. But the question of responsibility, it's really more complicated.
Al Letson: How is it more complicated? If they own the site, that feels pretty gut and dry. They should be responsible, right?
Jennifer Gollan: You would think so, but energy producers have figured out ways to avoid responsibility when workers are injured or killed. That's one of the reasons, in fact, why we went to North Dakota, is to sort out how.
Speaker 6: With news breaks. We're on it. Your news and information source for Williston and the Bakken. The new [ease 00:21:09] AM-616.
Jennifer Gollan: On one of the days I was there, I guy named Dennis Schmitz took me on a tour of the Bakken oil patch. He's worked in the oil fields for the last 15 years. Now, he heads this group called the MonDak Safety Network that promotes workplace safety in the Bakken.
Dennis Schmitz: This is the boom we're trapped with in Watford City, North Dakote. This really was the center of the boom.
Jennifer Gollan: There are a couple of obvious reasons for the dangers in the Bakken. Oil and gas can be explosive. There is heavy machinery everywhere. On top of that, safety experts like Dennis Schmitz say that a lot of companies care about speed over safety.
Dennis Schmitz: When you look at the culture over the last 5 or 6 years and the culture, it has really been more based on production and getting things done than to do things the right way or the safe way. It's all about making money.
Jennifer Gollan: Even though the work is dangerous, federal oversight is spotty. For starters, there's no federal safety standard that applies specifically to oil and gas. Instead, regulators rely on standards written by the industry itself. By groups like the American Petroleum Institute. It's a unique situation that other dangerous industries like construction or mining don't [inaudible 00:22:27]. They have to follow strict federal safety rules that cover specific hazards.
To make things even more complicated, there's the business side. You have the major energy companies that typically own or operate the wells, but they usually rely on contractors to do the actual work on their sites. That means when something goes wrong, it's hard for regulators to find the top company. These are the big corporations we're talking about. Because they often don't have direct employees on the sites.
Justin Williams: We need to start looking at each piece of the puzzle and who's responsible for what, who owns what.
Jennifer Gollan: Justin Williams is this tall guy, he wears ostrich leather boots and for decades, he was a corporate attorney for some of the biggest oil companies in the world. Then, something happened.
Justin Williams: The beginning of 2008, I developed pancreatic cancer and my life changed. I wanted a little bit more purpose in my life than representing corporate America.
Jennifer Gollan: He essentially switched sides. Now, he represents injured oil workers and their families, including two of the men hurt or killed in the Oasis explosion. The way that Justin sees is, energy companies are ducking responsibility when mistakes happen. They're doing it in a couple of different ways. The contracts which we'll get to in a little bit and one guy, the company man.
Justin Williams: He is the eyes and ears of the company on location.
Jennifer Gollan: You might assume that company man is an employee of a company. In fact, decades ago, that's how it used to be. But then, companies came up with a new idea.
Justin Williams: We'd like to keep these people on our payroll when we're not drilling a well or working over well, we'll hire consultants.
Jennifer Gollan: Now, most company men are independent contractors like a lot of the workers on these sites. That is very key, because it allows the company to distance itself when something goes wrong. Let's look at how that played out in the Oasis accident.
Speaker 4: What's your first name?
Speaker 4: Lauren?
Jennifer Gollan: On a day of the accident in 2011, the company man for Oasis was a guy named Lauren Baltrus. Baltrus declined to speak with us, but you're hearing him here in this video. It was shot by the McKenzie County sheriff's department just after the explosion.
Speaker 4: Just give me a brief overview of the day and tell me what happened, if you would?
Lauren: Okay. Well.
Speaker 4: To the best of your ability.
Jennifer Gollan: That day, Lauren was overseeing a crew from Carlson Well service, a small oil service company. Carlson declined to talk with us. But the company was hired by Oasis to get the well to produce more.
Lauren: [inaudible 00:25:06] this morning and we got there and-
Jennifer Gollan: Before the Carlson crew could get started, Oasis had to make sure that the well was safe to work on. Records show they injected thousands of gallons of salt water into the well to eliminate pressure from the gas. But when the Carlson guys started working on it, it blew.
Lauren: I turned around and the guys were burning all over the place. They were running around, trying to get themselves off, so I would ... Started to put [inaudible 00:25:32] layers on and [inaudible 00:25:33]. Horrible deal.
Jennifer Gollan: Oasis said in the statement that the company man arranged and oversaw the salt water injections and that the well was safe to work on when the Carlson men started. Oasis says the explosion was caused by a sudden, unexpected flow of gas. But attorney Justin Williams says one of the men working that day warned Lauren, the company man, that the well was unsafe.
Speaker 5: He said he ... I told Lauren that it needed to be closed down and we needed to get away from it and I told him three times.
Jennifer Gollan: In a claim against Oasis, Justin argued the company had acted negligently. He said that the company man was at fault for the explosion and he was operating under direct orders from Oasis itself.
Speaker 4: It looks like you say-
Jennifer Gollan: There's an exchange in the sheriff's video that highlights the close connection between the company and the company man. Towards the end, someone comes up and interrupts the interview. He says to Lauren, the guys in Houston are calling. Oasis's headquarters are in Houston.
Speaker 6: Hey Lauren, that's the guys in Houston, they're very concerned about you. You need to get checked out.
Speaker 6: We haven't even have him into ... You've got smoke inhalation, you've got ... What you've been through.
Lauren: We're [inaudible 00:26:46] done.
Speaker 6: We need to get you ... I know you're not in the right train here.
Jennifer Gollan: After the accident, federal regulators didn't find Oasis. Instead, they find Carlson, the subcontractor, in part for not having the right safety equipment that day. But here's the thing. That safety equipment, it would not have prevented the accident in the first place. When it came to paying money to the victims and their families, Oasis got Carlson's insurance company to cover some of the cost. That's by design.
What I have here is the contract that Carson signed with Oasis. It includes certain protections, including what's called an indemnity clause. Almost every contract involving major energy producers in North Dakota has one of these. It basically says if something goes wrong, the company can off load its liability.
Often workers and their families aren't even aware of all this legalizes. Like the parents of Brendon Wagner. He was one of the men killed in the Oasis explosion in 2011. I went to Wisconsin to meet them and Brandon's dad showed me around his backyard where there's this huge
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Jennifer Gollan: [Them 00:28:00], and Brendan's dad showed me around his backyard where there's this huge wooden pole.
Speaker 2: We put a rope up in the tree, and we use a tractor to pull it up there, and we set it all by hand, and ...
Jennifer Gollan: It stretches up above the roof of the house. Kevin Wegner's an electrical lineman, and he always thought Brandon would go into the family trade, so he set up this pole for him to practice. How much time did you guys spend talking about safety?
Speaker 2: Oh, I taught him, when you come up to a pole, you thump it. If you're in question, you dig down, you drive a screwdriver into it to make sure it's not rotted. This is something you just don't run up and do. You got to put some thought into it.
Jennifer Gollan: Do you think if he had stayed behind in Wisconsin he would have followed in your footsteps and continued as an electrical lineman?
Speaker 2: I think so, yeah. Yeah. Whether that or farming. He would have been happy either way. Yeah.
Jennifer Gollan: Do you think about that much?
Speaker 2: Oh, I do. I guess I wish I wouldn't, pushed him out to North Dakota, and just kept him close to home.
Jennifer Gollan: Brendan's experience on this pole actually helped him get the job in North Dakota. He was comfortable around heights, and it's one reason he was hired, but his first day on a rig, he died.
Al: Jennifer Gollan, thank you for that story. Before you go, did you get a chance to talk to Oasis Petroleum, and what does the company have to say?
Jennifer Gollan: Well, the company declined to make any officials available for an interview. Instead, they gave me this written statement that said, "Any suggestion that the company or its company man knowingly put workers in danger is patently false," and that the company "Really values worker safety."
Al: Did you visit the site where the accident happened?
Jennifer Gollan: I did.
Al: What was that? I mean, what does it look like now?
Jennifer Gollan: Well, when we got there it was this windswept bluff, and the wreckage from the accident that day had been cleared away, but we did see this new rig that it started drilling shortly before we got there. The site was overseen by an Oasis company man named Bruce Jorgensen. His connection to the accident that day was uncanny. It turns out that when the explosion happened, he was working on the same nearby site as Jessie Stanfill, that guy with the gloves.
Al: What did he have to say?
Jennifer Gollan: I think he was rattled when he realized he was back on the same site where these guys had died.
Bruce: I'm like, "Ooh, this is where the accident was." I haven't talked to any of the rig hands about it yet, but I didn't want them freaked out by that in any way. I wanted their mind on what we were doing.
Jennifer Gollan: Bruce has this interesting perspective. He's worked in the oil fields for years, and he's worked his way from the bottom up to the top, and he says the safety culture in the oil fields has gotten better, but that some companies preach safety and don't follow through. Back when he was a rig hand, he faced that.
Bruce: I had to do it when I was a tool pusher. I had to tell the company man, "Whoa, we're working. We're getting it done. Well, we're not going to get it done any faster with you standing here screaming at us. Don't make it get worse. Let us do our job."
Jennifer Gollan: I got the sense that Bruce has been permanently shaped by the lessons he's learned in the oil fields, and on the Oasis site, he was reminded every day of what's at stake, right at the edge of the property, stuck in the red clay, there was this simple wood cross. It's a memorial for Brandon Wegner.
Al: That story was produced by Delaney Hall and reported by Jennifer Gollan. As we mentioned earlier, Jenn's story was also turned into a play called North by Inferno. She and some of the actors had a chance to talk about the impact of the story on the oil companies and the employees working in the oil fields.
Fernando: Awesome. Well, thank you very much, everyone, for staying with us. I want to ask ...
Al: The play's director, Jenna Welch, joined in the question-and-answer session after one of the performances, moderated by Reveal Editor Fernando Diaz.
Fernando: Jenna, can you tell us why you saw an opportunity to create this play?
Jenna: When I heard this story, I was dumbstruck. I couldn't believe that we allowed people to work in the United States under these conditions, and not only was I infuriated about it, but I was deeply saddened. I couldn't let it go.
Fernando: Well, with that, I'd love to open it up to questions that you may have, if anybody has a question.
Speaker 8: Tell us about the total number of people that you were able to show this to in North Dakota.
Jenna: We premiered the play in Grand Forks, and that was at the Edge Festival for New Work. That performance, for us, was incredibly powerful because we had people who were a part of our story there, but then we also had people in Grand Forks and that community that had peripheral relationships with the oil field, but weren't being directly impacted by because they're on the other side of the state. There were so many questions about the regulations. How could this be? Why is North Dakota different? It was very provocative in that sense. When we went to Williston, it was an incredible conversation about oil, because it wasn't pushing back on people directly in the room. We were telling a story that they all knew about. They all lived in Williston. This accident is still very real to them, and then Bismarck was a little feisty. Bismarck was, people were pushing back: "What's the point of this? Why are you here? Why would you tell us ... What are you trying to gain?"
Speaker 9: Hi. I'm wondering, either from the original journalism or in response to the play, has there been any kind of response from the oil companies or any kind of movement towards changing legislation?
Jenna: Sure, so at the state level, lawmakers in North Dakota, they are proposing a bill that would ban indemnification agreements, which are these contracts that energy operators use in the oil fields to push off responsibility for the cost of accidents, and critics say eliminates any incentive for them to keep workers safe; and they are also trying to find funding to hire additional inspectors to improve workplace safety. At the federal level, Dr. Michael, as the head of OSHA, issued a statement in response saying that there needs to be more accountability for top energy companies, and OSHA has stepped up enforcement. They are also scrutinizing so-called "bonuses" that are distributed to workers for drilling quickly and some say leads to accidents; so those are among some of the concrete impacts that we've had so far.
Fernando: Do any of the other actors want to talk about meeting the folks who they're portraying or relatives? I know, John, you met Jessie. Jessie gave you his gloves at one point. I don't know if you're still using those in the play.
Jenna: Yeah, those are the ones I'm actually, used tonight and have been using ever since he gave them to me. He was at the opening in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and it's a pretty emotional evening. He actually had to walk out during the performance when I was portraying him, but he came back in and actually told us afterwards that he had had his best night's sleep in years, after that performance.
Al: You can see a video of the play at our website, revealnews.org. When we come back, another earthshaking consequence of the oil boom, this time in Oklahoma. You're listening to Reveal.
Julia: Julia from Reveal here. You just heard Jennifer Gollan's piece about the deadly working conditions in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. To dive a little deeper into the controversy, go to revealnews.org/bakken, that's B-A-K-K-E-N, where you can read more about the workers and see exclusive photos. It's a chance to put a face to a name.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. Our next story takes us to Oklahoma. Courts there have recently cleared a path for people to sue oil companies over injuries and damages caused by earthquakes. That's right, earthquakes. Quakes that everyone ... Okay, nearly everyone, now acknowledge can be traced to the oil industry. Each time there's a new quake, the 911 centers in Oakland get overrun with calls.
Female: I just felt a bomb or something go off.
Female: It was an earthquake.
Female: It was?
Female: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Female: Oklahoma City 911.
Female: Yes, I don't ...
Female: Are you calling about the earthquake, ma'am?
Female: Is that what happened?
Female: That's what it was.
Female: No, I was just sitting looking at the ballgame, and my butt started moving.
Al: Most of the time, though, it's not that funny. Brick buildings have crumbled, roads have buckled, and people have gotten hurt; so how do you go from almost no earthquakes to being one of the most seismically active places in America? That's what Reveal's Michael Corey wanted to find out.
Michael: Hi, Al. Yeah, I've covered earthquake safety in California in the past, but that makes sense. This place is known for earthquakes; and then I found out that Oklahoma actually is now more seismically active than California, kind of like a lot more, and I wanted to know what was going on, so Al, check this out.
Al: What was that?
Michael: This is earthquakes in Oklahoma, and we basically ran Oklahoma's earthquake data through a synthesizer to give you a sense of what's going on there. This is about 2005/2006, so each plink there is one earthquake.
Al: Okay, so they're kind of speeding up now, right?
Michael: Yeah. Yeah. This is about 2009, and you're hearing that something is definitely changing; and during the same time, oil and gas prices were way up and Oklahoma was starting a big increase in oil production.
Al: Wow, that is a big one.
Michael: Yeah, that was the big earthquake in Prague, Oklahoma, in 2011. We'll come back to that one.
Al: Sounds like pinball. I just have a pinball machine. Oh, wow, that's a lot.
Michael: Yeah, this is like today.
Female: Yeah, I'm fine, but is there going to be more?
Male: We have no idea.
Al: Who does know, and what's being done about it?
Michael: Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to find out, so I went to Oklahoma and teamed up with a reporter who's been covering this story in depth, Joe Wertz.
Joe: Joe Wertz here. I'm a reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma, which is a statewide reporting outfit. In the last few years, earthquakes have become a big story in Oklahoma. Sometimes they wake me up in the middle of the night, I get a bunch of alerts and beeps and emails, and I have to get up and check it out, make sure nothing was damaged, and make sure no one was hurt.
Michael: We met up in Oklahoma City, and we didn't have to wait long for an earthquake to hit. One night there was a 3.8 and a 3.9 magnitude earthquake in a town called Guthrie, about 20 miles away, so we headed to the epicenter to check it out. Guthrie's had a lot of earthquakes. This is kind of ground zero, or one of the ground zeroes in the state in recent years.
Joe: Pulling into downtown Guthrie is kind of like entering the set of Deadwood. It's an old-timey western town. The main street is lined with hundred-year-old brick buildings. Those are some of the most vulnerable structures to earthquakes. Mike and I ducked into a coffee shop down the street. Barista Kiera Hancock has been here since dawn.
Kiera: I come here at 6, so I have to get up at like 5. I was getting ready and it was like really dark in the house, and then that's when the huge ... I don't know how big it was, but it felt really big. It may have just been because I was the only one awake, but it was really scary.
Joe: Our next stop was the Ace Hardware store where Brian Johnson was helping his customers.
Brian: Typically, it's mortar repair, concrete between the bricks when it cracks. I've personally done that myself.
Michael: How often do you think you feel an earthquake?
Brian: Honestly, about every other day.
Brian: There's typically something. There were 2 or 3 yesterday. Today, it was cool. Five years ago when we had one, the first one I've ever felt. Now, it's just something that's not going to stop. It's all the fracking going on and everything else. They're not going to quit.
Joe: He might be right. The quakes are showing no signs of quitting. In fact, they've increased along with Oklahoma's energy exploration. In 2002, the state averaged about 91 active rigs looking for oil and gas. In recent years, that number has doubled.
Michael: Some of you are probably wondering: What is the connection between drilling for oil and earthquakes? It's actually not fracking here that's the biggest culprit. It's something called an injection oil. If only I had an instructional video with a funky bass line to help explain ...
Speaker 18: How do class 2 injection operations work?
Michael: Thanks, California Department of Oil and Gas. See, even in traditional drilling, there's a lot of toxic water mixed up with the oil. After it's separated, all that water's got to go somewhere, but where?
Speaker 18: For disposal projects, the saltwater is trucked or piped into holding tanks and injected into a nearby well.
Michael: Like the one we visited outside of Guthrie. Several 15-foot-tall tanks sit in the middle of a farm, and they almost look like grain silos. There's about 3200 in similar wells around the state.
Joe: Out here, we've got a lot of these disposal wells and that's sort of what scientists are looking at, is how injecting millions of gallons of waste water into the earth ... Where does it go?
Michael: Yeah. It's a mile down. No one's been down there. Exactly what's going on down there and how to control it is currently one of the hottest topics for earth scientists. Like Mark Petersen, with the US Geological Survey. Here, he is speaking to the Seismological Society of America.
Mark: For the first time in this report, we have identified 17 areas in the central and eastern United States with increased rates of induced seismicity that are thought to be stimulated by fluid injection.
Michael: Induced seismicity means man-made earthquakes. Scientists say there could be a lot of reasons why Oklahoma is experiencing so many earthquakes now. It could be the increased activity we mentioned earlier or the cumulative effect of decades of injecting waste water into the ground. What we do know is ...
Mark: These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before and pose a much greater risk and threat to people living nearby.
Joe: Around here, everyone knows the earthquakes are continuing. Scientists say they could get worse. After years of hedging, Oklahoma officials now publicly agree with scientists on the cause. Just this spring, our governor, Mary Fallin, for the first time, acknowledged the role oil and gas production has in the earthquakes; but despite this and the fact that a dozen peer reviewed research papers point to a clear link, the oil industry is downplaying the connection.
Chad: For every seismologist or geophysicist that comes out and says, "It's definitively yes," we've got buildings full of really smart people who say that's not the case.
Joe: Chad Warmington is president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association. We requested interviews with individual oil companies, but they all referred us to Chad. He's their industry spokesperson.
Chad: There's a lot of things we don't know about what is causing the increased seismic activity in the state, but what we really want to focus on is what can we do from a scientific standpoint to minimize the risk of that.
Joe: The oil industry is going to have to make its case in court. Earthquake victims brought 2 high-profile lawsuits against disposal well operators after the state's biggest quake, that one right there. It happened in Prague back in 2011 and it changed everything.
Speaker 21: Now, just 30 miles at the southwest of Prague, the St. Gregory's University received extensive damage. Three towers of Benedictine Hall crumbled to the ground. Glass windows are shattered. The premises is now blocked off, fearing additional towers could fall.
Joe: Many Oklahomans, myself included, heard the noise or felt the shaking. Even people in Milwaukee, that's 800 miles away, felt it. Two people were injured, more than a dozen homes were destroyed, and many more were damaged. I visited St. Gregory's, that school from the news story. It's a small Catholic university and monastery that's still reeling from the financial blow of its towers collapsing and crumbling to the ground. They were an icon of the university; but the abbot there, Lawrence Stasyszen, says it could have been worse.
Lawrence: Yes. Thanks be to God. No one was injured either in the collapse material there or elsewhere on campus. Had anyone been walking along the building when this happened, there could easily have been fatalities.
Joe: The earthquake in Prague was a magnitude 5.7. That's the largest recorded in Oklahoma ever. Seismologists say it's possible that parts of the state could see a 6 or an even bigger earthquake. One of those places is Stillwater. That's the home of Oklahoma State University.
Michael: Oklahoma State has 25,000 students and a lot of brick buildings. We decided to go see how prepared the university is for a major earthquake.
Ron: My name is Ron Hill. I'm the manager for Oklahoma State University Emergency Management.
Michael: Ron's in the emergency command center at OSU.
Ron: Well, we like to think that this is a state-of-the-art emergency operations center. We think it's one of the better ones for higher ed.
Michael: Ron is responsible for the lives of everyone on campus here, and he also advises a lot of smaller colleges in the area on emergency planning. He's evaluated the buildings on campus for how they hold up in a tornado; but when it comes to evaluating buildings for earthquakes ...
Ron: No. Not yet, but I'm sure that will be coming shortly. Again, this is all new to us in Oklahoma.
Michael: How much potential damage are we even talking about here? We took that question to OSU geology professor, Todd Halihan.
Todd: If you look at some of the risks from these types of buildings, this is the brick façade coming off. When you walk between 2 buildings with a narrow walkway in between, you realize that's a pretty hazardous spot to be.
Michael: Halihan keeps track of scientific papers on the Oklahoma situation, one of which says that a big one could happen here in Stillwater.
Todd: If it were to happen directly under one of the towns here, it would be pretty devastating.
Michael: When you say devastating, you mean people are going to die?
Todd: If we had that kind of large event in the wrong location, yes, people will die.
Joe: Oklahoma's buildings, roads and bridges weren't built with earthquakes in mind. Emergency authorities here put earthquakes low on their disaster planning priority list. According to the most recent state disaster plan, quakes ranked number 13. That's after tornadoes and lightning, and something called expansive soils, whatever in the world that is.
Michael: That's because in Oklahoma, a truly devastating earthquake hasn't happened yet. San Francisco learned its lesson from the big one in 1906, and the city's been grappling with how to build for the next big one ever since. We talked to David Bonowitz, a structural engineer and a key figure in advising San Francisco on seismic design. He's taken a particular interest in Oklahoma. He spoke at a conference of structural engineers at Oklahoma State.
David: My question which I went to them with was, "Can the things we do in California ... Can they apply here?"
Michael: For example, David led San Francisco's effort to retrofit some of their oldest, most vulnerable brick buildings.
David: In San Francisco, we're being very proactive. We are recognizing that we're going to have to rebuild the city after the big earthquake. Let's do it now. What you may be seeing in Oklahoma now is really what's behind everyone's objections. It's not whether it has to be done, but who is going to pay for it.
Joe: Who has to pay and how much it will cost is a question that involves politics. In a significant move, the state's oil and gas regulators recently ordered about 90 companies to prove their wells weren't pumping waste fluid into granite rock. That's a known risk factor for triggering earthquakes. For wells that are too deep, companies must either shut down or modify their operation. That's what you're hearing right now. I'm at a disposal well named George in Grant County. That's near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. See, this well is too deep. Workers are pouring cement down the hole, and that's going to lift the bottom of the well up about 200 feet.
Michael: While regulators have put some restrictions in place, lawmakers are going in the opposite direction. They recently even passed a ban on municipal bans on disposal wells. That means if a city, a town or a county wants to ban a well they think is causing problems, they can't do it.
Cory: We don't do things anti-oil and gas.
Joe: Cory Williams, a democrat from Stillwater, is an outspoken critic of the state legislature's cozy relationship with the industry. He says to understand the amount of control the energy industry has in Oklahoma, you just have to look out of its Capitol office window.
Cory: You can see the oil derrick that's out there. Literally, used to look north out of this window and there were hundreds upon hundreds of oil wells out there.
Joe: The Oklahoma Capitol building is the only state house in the country built on an active oil field. Today, there are still a few of those derricks towering outside.
Michael: The overwhelming number of earthquakes in the state is making it harder for politicians to do nothing. Williams has found an occasional ally in Jason Murphy, a Republican from Guthrie.
Jason: As soon as an earthquake event of significant size occurs, part of the aftershock experience for me will be fielding very irate calls and emails.
Joe: Murphy and Williams held a hearing on earthquakes and disposal wells. No new legislation came of it, but Murphy welcomes the new restrictions from state regulators. He thinks they're good and they're necessary. He says they not only protect his constituents, but they also protect the state's most important industry.
Jason: The biggest threat to the energy sector would be an induced seismicity event that was damaging in terms of life, livelihood, and property. If that does happen, there's going to be something [with chains over 00:51:21] the energy sector for the rest of our lifetime.
Al: Thanks to StateImpact Oklahoma's Joe Wertz, and producer Ike Sriskandarajah, for bringing us that story. Since the story first ran, Reveal Reporter Mike Corey has continued to gather data from Oklahoma, and here's that synthesizer piece again, but this time with 8 more months of earthquakes. State regulators have shut down a lot of wells, and low oil prices are leading producers to inject less water anyway. Scientists say they've seen evidence that slowdown is reducing earthquakes in some places, but so far, there's been no large-scale letup in seismic activity. In the last few months, there have been a steady string of 4s, and even a 4.8, the biggest earthquake in the state since the big one in 2011, and after several quakes near a strategic oil depot, Homeland Security is now officially worried as well, because, as you can hear, things haven't exactly settled down in Oklahoma.
Our show was edited by David Ritsher and our lead producer was Julia B. Chan. The rest of the Reveal team includes Stan Alcorn, Fernanda Camarena, Rachel de Leon, Deb George, Peter Hayden, Katharine Mieszkowski, Michael Montgomery, Adithya Sambamurthy, Neena Satija, Michael Schiller, Ike Sriskandarajah, Laura Starecheski, Taki Telonidis, and Amy Walters. We had additional help from editors Fernando Diaz, Jennifer La Fleur, and Amy Pyle. Our lead sound designer and engineer is my man, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs. He had some help from Rob [Spate 00:53:08]. Christa Scharfenberg is head of studio. Susanne Reber is the executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
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