RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now to a medical mystery in the oil fields of America. It involves nine workers found dead over the past six years, collapsed on oil well pads. All of the men were working alone, often in the middle of the night, and many were young and otherwise healthy. Emily Guerin of Prairie Public Radio has this story of a doctor and a reporter who puzzled over this mystery and went on to solve it.
EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: On a cold night in January 2012, Dustin Bergsing climbed on top of a crude oil storage tank in North Dakota's Bakken oil field. His job was to open the hatch on top and drop a rope inside to measure the level of oil. But just after midnight, a coworker found him dead, slumped next to the open oil tank hatch.
MIKE SORAGHAN: A 21-year-old kid just sort of dies out in the middle of nowhere and nothing happens?
GUERIN: That's reporter Mike Soraghan, who came across Bergsing's case while researching oil field fatalities for EnergyWire, an online business publication. Even though an autopsy showed Bergsing had hydrocarbons in his blood - things like benzene and butane - the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's investigation found no safety violations. And it didn't fine the oil company.
SORAGHAN: And I just remember reading through it and thinking, you know, that's it?
GUERIN: Soraghan reached out to Dr. Bob Harrison, who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine. He was interested too.
BOB HARRISON: It just didn't add up to me.
SORAGHAN: And so then we just both started digging. He is saying, well, is there any other cases? And so I started trying to dig them up myself.
GUERIN: While Soraghan was doing that, Harrison combed through Bergsing's autopsy to try to figure out how petroleum gases got into his blood. Harrison guessed that Bergsing passed out after opening the hatch on the oil tank.
HARRISON: It was one of those aha moments that I have every so often in my career as a doctor treating patients with toxic chemical exposures.
GUERIN: Meanwhile, Soraghan found another case of a young oil worker who had collapsed on top of an oil tank back in 2010.
SORAGHAN: Trent Vigus.
HARRISON: And this man died in almost exactly the same circumstances as Dustin Bergsing. And it was like deja vu all over again.
GUERIN: At that point, Harrison contacted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and said, hey, I suspect a pattern. NIOSH found seven more oil workers who had died after inhaling petroleum gases. Families of at least six of them are suing their employers. Since last year, the agency has warned the industry about the hazard. But exposure continues. Truck driver Ryan Ehlis hauls crude oil in North Dakota.
Is this the site?
RYAN EHLIS: Yeah, that's it.
GUERIN: We pull up in front of a row of 20-foot-tall, round, metal oil storage tanks. Ehlis spends a lot of time climbing them to open their hatches to measure the oil, just like Dustin Bergsing was doing when he died. The oil field slang for this process is buying oil.
EHLIS: Yeah, when I went up here to buy oil yesterday, I came down, and I was kind of dizzy and lightheaded from the gas.
GUERIN: He tries to avoid it. But sometimes it doesn't work.
EHLIS: If there's gas in your face you kind of hold your breath and then get your gauge and then step away and get into the fresh air and (laughter), you know, and go - (gasp) - and then go do something again. You know, but it's - you can't avoid it entirely.
DENNIS SCHMITZ: This is a senseless exposure, right? This is - this makes no sense whatsoever.
GUERIN: Dennis Schmitz is an oil and gas safety trainer. He says there are much safer ways for workers like Ehlis to measure oil levels. They're common in Canada and in the offshore oil and gas industry. In fact, Schmitz has used them on tanker ships.
SCHMITZ: And I never really questioned why is it, in the offshore environment, that I don't breathe the vapors there, and I do breathe them here.
GUERIN: For oil wells on federal land, the rules are different. The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of oil development on federal land. And critics say the agency is wary of technology that might not be as accurate as putting guys on top of tanks to measure oil by hand. There's public money at stake, royalties that are paid by the oil companies on the exact amount of oil that comes out of the ground.
STEVE WELLS: So my name is Steve Wells, just like in oil and gas wells.
GUERIN: It's Wells' job at the Bureau of Land Management to oversee oil production.
WELLS: I mean, if it's a public asset and the taxpayer deserves to have their money, their asset's protected.
GUERIN: So I asked him, is dropping a rope inside an oil tank the most accurate way to measure oil? He said back in 1989, the last time the rules were updated, it was the industry practice.
WELLS: You have some very old facilities, very simple tanks. So the idea is that we're trying to accommodate all the different operations.
GUERIN: And there are a lot of them, some 83,000 oil wells on federal land. It costs about $2,000 per tank to install automatic oil measurement equipment. And many oil companies say that would be cost prohibitive, especially on the older wells that aren't producing much. But even if they wanted to install it, current BLM rules don't allow it. The agency is updating those rules this year, but the BLM's Steve Wells won't say whether the new rules will allow automatic oil measurement. One thing the rules definitely won't do is ban measuring oil by hand.
WELLS: Because some operators will say, well, then you basically just shut us down. We cannot comply.
GUERIN: Back in North Dakota, truck driver Ryan Ehlis, uses his tablet to check how many truckloads of crude he has to haul tonight.
EHLIS: It's going to be a good tonight. I'll actually make some money.
GUERIN: He has thought about changing jobs but says there just isn't anything around that pays as well. There was this one time, though, that he had second thoughts when he saw a truck explode on an oil well pad.
EHLIS: I looked out my window, and there's nothing but a huge orange fireball probably 50 feet in the air. Everybody was running (laughter). That was the one night that I questioned whether I should even be out here working. I'm like, is this worth it?
GUERIN: Those doubts lasted about 24 hours. And then Ehlis got back to work, climbing oil tanks and lowering in a rope to measure the level. For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin.
MONTAGNE: That story came to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues.
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