Disaster strikes area of Oklahoma rocked by natural gas well explosion less than a year ago

Investigation begins into deaths of five workers.

An explosion and fire at a natural gas rig in Pittsburg County, Oklahoma reportedly killed five workers. CREDIT: Screenshot/KOTV.com
An explosion and fire at a natural gas rig in Pittsburg County, Oklahoma reportedly killed five workers. CREDIT: Screenshot/KOTV.com

Five workers are presumed dead after a natural gas rig exploded in Oklahoma Monday, causing a massive fire that left a derrick crumpled on the ground. The deadly blast comes less than a year after a natural gas well explosion in the same area of the state injured one worker.

Red Mountain Energy LLC, a four-year-old company based in Oklahoma City, was operating the well site. Houston-based company Patterson-UTI Energy Inc. owns the rig. Sixteen workers escaped the site in Pittsburg County, Oklahoma, without major injuries; one required treatment at a local hospital. The five workers presumed dead are Josh Ray, of Fort Worth, Texas; Cody Risk, of Wellington, Colorado; and Matt Smith, Parker Waldridge and Roger Cunningham, all of Oklahoma. Ray, Smith and Risk were Patterson-UTI employees.

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The explosion and fire on Monday occurred as a crew was drilling a new well. The well had not been completed and no natural gas was being produced, Pittsburg County Office of Emergency Management Executive Director Kevin Enloe said at a press conference Monday. Several tanks surrounded the derrick, all of which caught fire after the explosion. A remote switch that controlled a blowout preventer at the bottom of the well was inoperable, Enloe said.

Red Mountain Energy and Patterson-UTI reportedly are working with local authorities and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to investigate the accident. OSHA had not responded to a request for more information about its investigation at the time this article was published.

Patterson-UTI Energy has a history of worker deaths. OSHA fined the drilling company more than $900,000 over a 10-year period ending in 2012 for repeated safety violations. A 2008 Senate committee report described the company as an example of the federal government’s “complete failure to check reckless and outrageous conduct” in the workplace. Given its poor safety record, a workplace safety blog, Confined Space, called Patterson-UTI an OSHA “frequent flyer.”

Patterson-UTI has about 25 drilling rigs active in Oklahoma, second only to Texas, where it has nearly 60 rigs in operation, the Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday. The newspaper described Monday’s incident as one of the deadliest in the upstream oil and gas sector in recent years. In one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, 11 platform workers were killed when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

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In the February 2017 incident in Pittsburg County, a worker at a Trinity Operating LLC natural gas production site suffered third-degree burns on his legs. The explosion occurred on one well head, which led to fires on three wells. The wells were already producing natural gas for Trinity Operating, which is not affiliated with Red Mountain Energy or Patterson-UTI.

Fatalities in the upstream oil and gas industry began rising sharply in 2011 in tandem with the fracking boom, peaking at 141 deaths nationwide in 2014. The sector has one of the highest rates of severe injuries in the country, according to an E&E News analysis released last year. Severe injuries are defined as those causing hospitalization or loss of a body part. The most common injury is amputation, most frequently fingers and fingertips. Next was fractures, mostly legs. E&E News used OSHA data for its analysis.

Residents are also at risk from natural gas explosions. Incidents involving natural gas pipelines, including distribution lines, cause an average of 17 fatalities and $133 million in property damage annually.

The number of workplace safety inspectors at OSHA has fallen by several dozen under the Trump administration. House Republicans have proposed cuts to OSHA’s enforcement budget by $13.5 million, or 6.5 percent below the FY 2017 budget. Under the 2018 spending proposal, the overall OSHA budget would be cut by 4 percent.

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The Trump administration’s rollback of workplace safety enforcement is taking place at the same time that the rate of deaths per 100,000 workers is slowly increasing, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 4,500 workers in the United States die on the job each year.