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.
Ray Ring received recognition in three national journalism contests for this story. He won the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award for magazine reporting, which is for journalism promoting social and economic justice. He was also a finalist for the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award and received an Honorable Mention Heywood Broun Award.
“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.