I am about as unlikely an advocate for Wyoming roughnecks’ rights as you could find. For one thing, I’m a writer — hardly a dangerous profession (unless you consider caffeine overdose or a paper-cut dangerous). For another thing, I am not local (I’m from Africa and as a result I sound about as Wyoming-roughneck as, well, as an African). And finally, I am an avowed tree-hugging, bunny-kissing greenie.
I am the woman in the Dansko clogs, in the German-made station wagon with the bumper sticker that shows a picture of the Earth and admonishes everyone to “Love Your Mother.” And here I am sticking up for the guy whose bumper sticker declares “Earth First! We’ll drill the other planets later.”
I tell you what got me converted; it was the overpowering whiff of injustice. I was out there on the oil patch, counting dead mule deer and wringing my hands over the rigs on the banks of the New Fork River, and a roughneck died. Then another, and another. Then, finally, Colton H Bryant — the fourth roughneck in just over 18 months to be killed near Pinedale, Wyoming.
In each case, the well site was owned by Ultra Petroleum. On the day that Colton’s obituary appeared in the Pinedale Roundup, an article on the same page announced Ultra’s record-breaking profits. On May 3, 2006, less than 3 months after Colton’s death, Patterson-UTI Energy, owner of the rig Colton fell off, announced record results for the quarter.
There were no safety rails where Colton fell. No one saw him fall. No one can, or will, tell the Bryant family what happened to Colton the night he lay, alone, in freezing conditions for no one knows how long — 30 or 40 minutes — until he was discovered, severely injured and critically hypothermic.
He was flown from Pinedale to Salt Lake City where he died in the arms of his mother, his father, his sisters, his brother and his best friend on the afternoon of February 15, 2006.
The family received a plaque from the Governor of Wyoming thanking them for the service of their loved one (Colton’s mother threw the plaque in the back of her closet). They received $7,000 to bury Colton. Colton’s wife received worker’s compensation. It wasn’t much and it will run out later this year. OSHA — which had found six serious safety violations leading to Colton’s death — fined Patterson $7,031 for its part in Colton Bryant’s accident. They did not find Ultra culpable of any infractions related to the accident that killed Colton.
If Colton’s death had been an isolated incident and if his family had been able to seek justice for his wrongful death, there would have been no story and I would not have written a book. But Colton’s story represents the stories of scores of other roughnecks whose deaths contribute to Wyoming’s woeful workplace fatality statistics.
A year after Colton died, and a year before The Legend of Colton H. Bryant was published, the federal Center for Disease Control reported that Wyoming consistently had the highest average annual fatality rate in the oil industry for the years 2003 thru 2006, at 58.5 per 100,000, compared to New Mexico at 45.2 per 100,000 and Louisiana at 29.2 per 100,000. A report published by the Wyoming Department of Employment, Research and Planning revealed that Wyoming set a record in 2007 for the number of workers in all industries killed on the job.
Why are we so squeamish about demanding justice for our roughnecks? An article in the Casper Star Tribune on January 26, 2009, reported that a judge ordered a Greybull man to pay $15,000 for killing a moose out of season in the Big Horn Mountains. The same paper reported on December 21, 2008 that the legislature would likely “approve a bill that would make a second conviction for poaching certain trophy animals a felony.” What message is coming from the legislature? Poach a moose, or a certain trophy animal more than once, and you bet you’ll be facing justice. Yet four roughnecks can die in an 18-month period on wells all owned by Ultra and Ultra is held responsible for nothing — even when the Fatality Narratives report dozens of safety violations leading to those men’s deaths.
Frankly, I don’t blame the oil and gas companies for this startling gap in justice. It is their job to maximize profits and protect their market share. It is their job to find and develop as many sources of energy as they possibly can — especially when, as happened last year, energy prices are going through the roof. It is not the oil and gas industry’s job to ensure that the laws of Wyoming are equitable and just. That always was, and it remains, the duty of Wyoming’s legislature.
By the time you read this, I will have testified before Wyoming’s House Judiciary Committee on HB 273 — a bill that is too late to help Colton’s family and the scores of other families who have not been able to seek restitution from the oil companies who killed or maimed a loved one. Since 1988, not one roughneck’s case against a major oil company has survived summary judgment. HB 273 will not solve all of Wyoming’s worker safety problems, but it will allow affected families to seek justice for their losses, just as they were prior to the courts baffling decision to interpret Wyoming law as granting immunity to oil and gas companies.
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More On Alexandra Fuller:
New York Times Profile, May 1, 2008
New York Times Essay, April 20, 2008
National Geographic, February, 2009
WyoFile Article: “Death In The Wyoming Oilfields”, May 5, 2008.
Casper Star Tribune, letter from a Bryant family member, February 1, 2009.