Disposable workers of the oil and gas fields

If you don’t have a college degree, it’s the best job in the West. Unless you die, unnoticed.

  • At sunrise, a roughneck begins a shift by guiding the massive sheave — a block and tackle on steroids — into place over a drill string that will be pulled under enormous pressure from a depth of more than 10,000 feet

    JT Thomas
  • Ninety-foot lengths of drill pipe are pulled from the well hole and stacked on the rig. It takes a well-coordinated heave-ho from the “derrick man” up in the “crow’s nest” and the roughneck on the drill platform to swing them safely into position

    JT Thomas
  • Colton Bryant with his wife, Melissa, and kids, shortly before he fell off a drilling rig walkway that had an inadequate railing; the February 2006 accident killed him

    Courtesy Bryant family
  • After drilling as deep as several miles into the earth, sometimes at complex angles, the pressure on the “string” becomes immense, at times peaking at 1 million pounds, and the rig strains while the crew is “tripping out” — pulling the entire length of mud-filled drill sections

    JT Thomas
  • Marsha Iriberry, who suffered many broken bones in a 2003 pipeline explosion, with her dog, Mickey, who recently lost part of a front paw in a coyote trap

    Ray Ring
  • D.J. Maser Jr. was 16 when he got badly burned in a welding shop that serves the oil and gas industry. Ten years later, he works in drywalling, and under the sheetrock dust, the burn scars show on his arms and hands. He got the black eyes at a recent party where he had too much to drink — a rare event, he says

    Ray Ring
  • Chemical-laden “mud”splashes from the hole as roughnecks work with the massive “string” that’s being pulled from deep in the earth

    JT Thomas
  • A roughneck works to get a pipe fitting screwed onto the drill section

    JT Thomas
  • Josh Riedel, front, wanted to be a pilot, and got a thrill on his first parachute jump. A few months after this photo, he took a summer job on a Wyoming drilling rig, hoping to save money for college. The rig’s massive “tongs” — for screwing pipes together — slammed and killed him

    Courtesy Riedel family
  • Safety features abound on newer drilling rigs. But constant demand for maintenance frequently puts roughnecks in high-risk and high-voltage situations.

    JT Thomas
  • A “derrick man,” seen here descending from the rig, can spend most of his 12-hour shift harnessed to the rig and suspended more than 70 feet above the main deck on a catwalk. He maneuvers tethered drill sections into position, an especially demanding job in harsh weather.

    JT Thomas
  • Despite sophisticated computers on some rigs, it is ultimately up to the drill operator to take the pulse of the rig and to watch the backs of his fellow roughnecks. “Whatever is going on, we always just move slow,” says one.

    JT Thomas
  • A roughneck wrestles 500-pound “break-out tongs” across the rig deck to unscrew a drill section from the “kelly.” Immediately afterward, another drill length is hoisted into place and screwed into the string. The driling process continues 24-7 until the maximum “trip” depth is achieved.

    JT Thomas
 

“You’re going to obtain a job. You have to maintain a job,” a Wyoming judge told Joe Laster. “You have the ability to work. You’re a big, strapping young man.”

The judge’s order came on Oct. 31, 2002, in a utilitarian district courtroom on a hilltop in Gillette, a city of 23,000 surrounded by coalbed methane fields and coal mines. Many people in Gillette survive on energy-related jobs, to the degree that the city’s seal, displayed on its trucks and letterhead, boasts, “The Energy Capital of the Nation.” But like most everywhere in America, some people in Gillette also support themselves by selling drugs, and Joe Laster, then 24 years old, had been caught dealing baggies of methamphetamine.

The pre-sentence report, supplemented with information from Laster’s family, sketches his path to that point: He’d lived in a half-dozen states as his parents drifted from job to job in the construction industry, mostly calling an 8-by-45-foot camper trailer home. He’d dropped out of high school, held spotty employment in gas fields and drywalling, had a 2-year-old daughter whose mother he didn’t marry and a rap sheet of 18 misdemeanors, from driving offenses to drugs to booze. He was known on some street corners as “crankhead Joey” and was residing in a campground at the time of his arrest.

The judge and the prosecutor gave Joe Laster a chance to straighten out: In a plea deal, he was put on four to nine years of probation, to be served, at his request, in the state’s local community corrections center, a low-slung, humorless building in an industrial zone on Gillette’s south side. If Laster could put in six good months, living in the corrections center while holding down a job and proving himself drug-free, he would be released to serve the rest of his probation outside custody.

A national nonprofit, Volunteers of America, contracts with the state to run the corrections center; the group has a Christian philosophy, and the center has Jesus portraits and religious slogans on the walls. “You won’t be able to quit or change a job without permission of your probation officer,” the judge warned.

How did Laster fare under that order to work? Though he was in the state’s custody the rest of his life, official sources provide only fragmentary information. His family is more forthcoming.

Taking directions the Lasters had provided, I drive several blocks from the courthouse during one of Gillette’s notorious blizzards, battling slush so deep it scrapes the car’s underbody. I wrestle a turn at Pat’s Liquors, stop at a single-wide trailer sandwiched between other trailers. Right away, the place looks halfway defeated; the front window has cracks held together by a starburst of duct tape. Inside, in the kitchen, Laster’s mother, Peggy, and his father, Ken, both look haggard; they’re missing front teeth and chain-smoking Camels. One of his sisters, Amanda, has damp hair and glowing skin, fresh from the shower.

They’re all angry, the type of anger that refuses to dissipate.

Peggy takes the lead. Between swigs from a quart beer bottle wrapped in a paper bag, she pulls out her stash of documents and snapshots, which, with additional court records, spell out what happened: Joe Laster had a meth relapse in the corrections center and was sent to Wyoming’s toughest prison, in Rawlins. He put effort into recovering from that setback, transferring to a Colorado prison, where he earned his GED, then to a forestry-oriented boot camp in the Wyoming prison system, where he learned to fight wildfires and was in a crew that saved a hundred homes. He took electronics classes and attended substance-abuse programs. He wrote the judge a letter, promising, “I plan to make better decisions in the future.”

By January 2005, Joe Laster made it back to the corrections center in Gillette, where staff helped him get a job with a small private company, Tyvo LLC, that was fixing up old water-well drilling rigs to be used for testing soils in the methane fields. With the current energy boom now into its seventh year, Gillette has essentially zero unemployment, and bosses come to the corrections center and pick up inmates for almost every shift.

About noon on Feb. 21, 2005, Laster and another inmate were working out in the high desert, on a dirt road off a dirt road off a dirt road, on a Tyvo drilling rig that was more than 40 years old. The rig — a 24-foot-tall derrick on a truck bed — hadn’t been in service for three years and needed repairs. The industry hungers for equipment as much as for workers, and in the rush for methane, which often occurs in shallow coalbeds, many water-well rigs have been pressed into service, either to tap the water-methane mix or for soil-testing.

Laster was loosening two stubborn bolts near an exposed, spinning driveshaft. The glove on his right hand snagged on the driveshaft, and in that split second, instinctively, he reached with his left hand. The inexorable machine — revolving at least 800 times per minute — tore off both his arms. He bled to death before the medical helicopter reached him, according to first responders.

Peggy has gone to some trouble to locate the spot where he died, and she shows me snapshots she took of her only son’s blood spilled on the dirt.

“They took my son!” she says. She leans close, sobs, collapses in a chair, rocks back and forth, hugging herself as if she might crack apart and dropping the terrible snapshots face down onto the linoleum.

Joe Laster’s death received almost no news coverage. The Associated Press published a few basics, a total of 101 words. Two investigators from Wyoming’s workplace overseer, the Department of Employment’s Workers’ Safety and Compensation Division, completed an investigation months later. The agency found that Tyvo LLC had violated safety regulations, citing the company for failing to have a guard on the driveshaft that grabbed Laster’s glove, for inadequate training, and for having no first-aid supplies at the site. The agency slapped Tyvo with a fine: $3,375

That doesn’t begin to satisfy Peggy Laster. She is tormented by thoughts that her son’s death has been swept into the brush. She wants a lot more investigation. She talks of the Flight for Life helicopter landing in the wrong place and then doubling back, which a map in a sheriff’s report indicates. Joe had years of experience on drill rigs, she says; he knew this one was a disaster waiting to happen. “It was a Mickey Mouse operation,” says Ken Laster. “He called us (a few days before the accident) and said he wasn’t happy working there.”

The family has few resources for pressing a legal grievance. Four adults — including Amanda’s husband, Justin — and three kids live squeezed into the one-bathroom trailer. But they want to spread the word, even if they also feel they’re taking a real risk meeting with me, a stranger. After all, I could be working for the cops, and, technically, they are fugitives: Arrest warrants are out on Peggy and Ken for driving with suspended licenses and then failing to show up in court.

As they talk about the injustice of what happened to Joe on the Tyvo rig, an irony emerges: Everyone in the trailer depends on the income from a single job, held by Justin, and that job is located in the methane fields that they know, all too well, can be lethal. At 28, Justin has worked there for 11 years already, doing, he says, “everything that needs doing.”

Across town, bosses still swing by the corrections center and pick up inmates and then head out to all sorts of jobs, some of them in the oil and gas fields.

---

The Lasters’ case burns on one end of the spectrum, but its themes resonate.

From Louisiana to Alaska, oil and gas is an industry in a rush, spurred by a sense of worldwide shortage and entranced by escalated prices and inordinate profits. And the industry targets the Interior West, especially; the region’s summertime total of drilling rigs has soared since 2000, from 204 to 447, according to RigData, a Texas company that tracks the industry. With that increase in drilling and related activities, the number of fatal accidents has also risen. Last year alone, 20 people died doing jobs directly related to drilling and servicing wells in the region. And for the whole time period I studied — 2000 to 2006, roughly encompassing the current boom in coalbed-methane and other natural gas exploration — federal and state records show at least 89 people died working in energy extraction in the states of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Montana and North Dakota. That toll is almost certainly an understatement, and not just because the average oil and gas death gets less publicity than, say, a fatal traffic wreck. This industry’s true accident totals, fatal and otherwise, are as shrouded in obscurity as the Laster case is.

There is a federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, assigned to look out for worker safety. It either handles each state’s workplaces directly, or hands off the duty to state agencies. But the federal and state safety cops don’t seem particularly tough. They can’t do many workplace inspections, because typically there are no more of them now than 20 years ago, straining to cover an explosion in the numbers of workplaces of all types that comes with the West’s population growth. And when workers die in the oil and gas fields, the safety cops levy fines that are so low, compared to the profits being reaped, that families often view the penalties as insulting and outrageous.

Other aspects of state laws also appear to be rigged against accident victims and their families, making it all but impossible for them to sue even in the face of apparently extraordinary management negligence. At times, the industry and the whole government system treat tenaciously loyal workers as if they were as disposable as a broken drill bit. The victims’ own character traits — from stoicism to lack of formal education to a tendency to use alcohol or drugs or both — often set them up to take the hit.

But there is a less downtrodden end of the death-and-energy spectrum, and I find it by taking the two-lane along the Bear River north from Evanston, Wyo., another oil-and-gas town. Past the office of Baker Hughes Fishing Services (the “fishing” that drillers do trying to hook things lost down the holes) and the turnoff for the big natural-gas plants that Chevron and BP have tucked into the hills, I take a series of dirt roads and finally come to the handsome log home where Kaylee and Bill Bryant have seven acres backed against the ice-rimmed river.

Bill greets me at the door, a polite, lean man with weathered gray eyes and a handlebar mustache; he’s wearing a blue Wrangler shirt, jeans and a tooled-silver belt buckle. He invites me into a living room that is grandly Western: soaring ceiling, draw-shaved logs from a local mill, sanded plank floors, fire flickering in the stove. Kaylee also shakes my hand politely, and on hers there’s the noticeable twinkle of the big diamond wedding ring Bill bought her 32 years ago. They’ve decorated their house with an array of cowboy stuff: Bill’s grandfather’s chaps, Bill’s father’s saddle, the chaps Bill had as a kid, and Kaylee’s spurs hang on the walls or the railing of the interior balcony. They both speak with a slight country drawl.

"I was born and bred cowboy," Bill says.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...