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Know the West

It tolls for us


One of my High Country News colleagues was proofreading a chart that’s part of this issue’s cover package. From deep concentration, she looked up to note that it had the same impact as the lists of Iraq War fatalities that the New York Times has been publishing of late. She wasn’t making chitchat, either; her voice was unsteady, and her eyes watered.

There is a doom-filled, For Whom the Bell Tolls tone to Ray Ring’s extraordinary investigative project, “Disposable Workers of the Oil and Gas Fields.” It is, after all, full of but-for-the-grace-of-God moments: Death strikes roughnecks one after another, seemingly meaninglessly, in a reflexive reach for a work glove, when a cable falls out of the sky, after a pipeline explodes, throwing someone 60 feet through the air and straight out of life.

Actually, though, Ring’s investigation is remarkable not for the drumbeat of death it describes, but for the humanity it reveals.

The core of the story can be classified as straightforward investigative coup. In six months of amassing documents, scouring lawsuits and prodding databases, Ring was able to map out the general scope of a little-noticed reality: Since the start of the second Bush presidency, as skyrocketing energy prices drove a wild increase in oil and gas drilling across the Interior West, the number of oil and gas workers killed in and around drill rigs also rose relentlessly.

As with the drilling boom, the boom in worker death played out in isolated rural landscapes most of America never sees, and so the dead have been largely invisible, three paragraphs of filler material in small-town newspapers. Still, the death boom was and is real — at least 20 people died in the oil and gas fields last year in six Western states — and Ring calls out its enablers with even-handed care.

The drilling companies sponsor training programs and talk up safety. But in the rush for oil and gas riches, the old equipment and exhausting work schedules that so often cause accidents never seem to get changed.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and its analog agencies at the state level duly investigate, write reports and issue citations. But drilling companies making tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars each year are repeatedly fined pittances — a couple of thousand dollars — for safety violations that kill.

And after they die on the job, Western energy workers often continue to get the shaft, a variety of state laws making it all but impossible for their families to sue, even in the face of apparently extreme negligence.

As I suggested, “Disposable Workers of the Oil and Gas Fields” has a human element often missing from your standard investigative exposé. In the end, it is less an investigation of policy failings than an eyes-open exploration of a piece of authentic Western culture that perseveres, despite those failings.

There may indeed be a “New West,” but the extractive economy of the Old West is alive and booming. In this issue, Ray Ring brings you the real people who died drilling for the oil that runs your car and the gas that heats your home, and the real pain of the parents and wives and siblings and children who survive them. They can be invisible no longer.