Death on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

An investigation into the deadly business of building oil and gas pipelines.

Death on the Dakota Access

An investigation into the deadly business of building oil and gas pipelines.
Even on the best of days, the rural plains of North Dakota are a lonely and unforgiving place. Far from the majestic buttes and meandering rivers to the south, this is the flattened, semi-industrial part of the state, where “you can watch a dog run away for five days,” as one local said to me. In the middle of this expanse, against a backdrop of blue sky and white clouds, a tractor sits alone, surrounded by fields of tan, dried wheat stalks. Also omnipresent is the infrastructure of oil production—oil and natural gas holding tanks connected to pipelines and nearby pump jacks, hypnotic in their steady rise and fall.

The closest town is some 12 miles away with a population of just 1,500 people. This is Tioga, the self-declared “Oil Capital of North Dakota!,” its logo a giant oil derrick attached to a pipeline, with another smaller derrick in the background and a few sprigs of wheat high off in the distance.

At the wheel of the tractor is Nicholas Janesich, a 27-year-old from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. It is the oil, not the wheat, that has brought him to this out-of-the-way place. Janesich is building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Construction of the 1,200-mile pipeline began in May of 2016, taking place simultaneously on three sections. It is designed to carry 570,000 barrels of oil a day, more than any other pipeline ever built in North Dakota. It originates outside the town of Stanley, in the upper northwest corner of the state, passes through South Dakota, then Iowa, and ends near Patoka, Illinois, where it connects to the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline (ETCO), which carries the oil onward to Texas and, if completed, via the Bayou Bridge Pipeline to Louisiana. From these Gulf Coast ports, much of the oil will hitch a tanker ride to distant markets overseas, either as crude or after being refined into other products, such as gasoline or ethylene, a petrochemical that is used to make plastics.

It is August 25th, 2016, and Janesich is working about 25 miles from the pipeline’s point of origin, in an area that had once been the hunting grounds of the Mandan and Hidatsa Native American tribes. By the late 19th century, they had been forced to resettle with the Sahnish tribe on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. In 1902, white homesteaders from New York founded the town of Tioga, an Iroquois word meaning “river junction,” which Tioga’s website erroneously translates as “peaceful valley.” Fifty years later, Tioga farmer Henry Bakken’s land was the site of one of North Dakota’s first oil strikes, revealing a geographic area of oil-enriched shale underlying some three-fourths of the state. It was named the Bakken Formation in Henry’s honor.

Tioga, North Dakota.

Tioga, North Dakota.

(Photo: Ev3rm0r3/Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike some other parts of the country, where oil is found in relatively accessible underground reservoirs, Bakken oil is locked tightly inside of shale rocks that are concentrated in a 150-foot-thick plane buried as deep as two miles below ground. By the mid-1990s, the technology was available for drilling horizontally and blasting the oil out of the rock using giant underground cannons capable of shooting a water-chemical cocktail at some 9,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, known as fracking. But it took the deregulatory and economic conditions of the early 2000s to unleash a torrent of oil production fanning out into the most rural and distant parts of the state, catapulting North Dakota from the eighth- to the second-largest oil-producing state in the nation in a matter of years.

Getting that oil to distant and larger markets is the purpose of DAPL, and the job that brought Janesich to North Dakota. Hired through the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 out of Minneapolis, he is what’s known as a “traveler” in the oil business, working some 500 miles from his hometown. His employer, Indianhead Pipeline Services, is a subcontractor to Precision Pipeline, a subcontractor to Dakota Access, LLC, the developer of DAPL. The company with the largest ownership stake of both DAPL and ETCO (known collectively as the Bakken Pipeline) is Energy Transfer Partners. This is Janesich’s first time working on a pipeline, and he has been at it for less than three weeks.

Known as “Nick Jay” to friends and family, he is a relatively slight man with pale white skin, a sandy-blond goatee, and a toothy smile that makes him look far younger than his 27 years. On his days off, you could expect to find Janesich working devotedly on—or behind the wheel of—his beloved jet-black dragster racecar. Decked out in brightly colored racing decals, it sits inches above the ground, fat black tires towering in the rear, its sleek triangular body tapering off to a fine point resting on two tiny front wheels. Janesich was “living his dream as a drag racer,” his best friend, Samantha Bluntach, wrote me, aiming “to work hard, score money and ‘go big'” racing in the 2018 National Hot Rod Association circuit.

On this August day, Janesich is driving a hunter-green John Deere pulling a baby-blue Landoll 1550 Series In-Row Ripper. The aptly named Ripper, a piece of farming equipment, is used to restore the ground above where the pipeline has been laid so that grass can take root and grow there. The machine tears through the earth using scythelike metal shanks attached to a horizontal frame via large coiled springs. The springs allow the shanks to rebound, so they don’t get stuck on rocks or rough soil. As pipeline jobs go, this is considered one of the least risky. Known as reclamation and restoration, it is the final phase of construction, in which the earth above the pipeline is tilled and reseeded.

But something happened when Janesich was out there alone in the field. The last time anyone was certain of seeing him was 9 a.m., when he was dropped off at the tractor by his foreman, Brian Proud. Proud reports trying to contact Janesich at 11 a.m., but to no avail. Operating engineer Norman Larrabee wrote in a company incident form that sometime between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m., “I seen a tractor of Indianhead come over the hill. … [H]e turned around and went back over [the] hill. [I] did not see him again.” It is supposed that this may have been Janesich. There are no witnesses, but investigators have since established the likely events of the day, retold here from interviews and Occupational Safety and Health Administration records acquired via the Freedom of Information Act….

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