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.

By Antonia Juhasz

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. ADVERTISEMENT    

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.

At some point along the way, the Ripper struck a large rock, locking a spring-loaded shank in the air, OSHA reports. Janesich got out, and set to work trying to fix it. He appears to have tried using a jack stand as a makeshift pry bar, jamming the long steel rod into the spring above his head. The spring did recompress, according to Indianhead’s incident report, sending the shank back down into position, but with such extreme speed and force that the pry bar was launched directly into the top of Janesich’s head. Somehow, he managed to climb back into his tractor, take off his shirt, and wrap it around his head before collapsing onto the steering wheel, where he remained—critically injured and very alone.

He could have contacted a foreman to request a skilled repair person, but, as Proud told OSHA investigators, Janesich’s choice to go it alone with what may have seemed like a minor repair is common practice—most workers know that time is money in the oil patch. There was no manual for the Ripper in the tractor, which OSHA identified as a violation of Indianhead policy. But a manual would likely not have done him much good. OSHA found that Indianhead had borrowed the Ripper from Precision, and that the machine had been altered, yet, according to Proud, Precision had failed to alert anyone on the job site to the change. Upon reviewing the case, the Landoll manufacturer reported to OSHA that the alteration (which involved the removal of two shanks) was the likely cause of the locked spring. Preventive maintenance on the borrowed piece of equipment might have alerted Indianhead to a potential problem, but when OSHA investigators asked Indianhead foreman Gregory Patrow about this, he chuckled, saying, “We don’t really have a program for it.”

Precision Pipeline did not respond to requests for comment. Indianhead’s president spoke with me briefly in 2016, but the company did not respond to further requests.

Janesich was not discovered until 2 p.m., when Proud, who was driving back from dropping off another worker, noticed the tractor idle in the distance. As Proud approached, he saw that the door to the cab was ajar, and Janesich was slumped over the wheel. He climbed inside the tiny cab with Janesich and saw the bloodied shirt around Janesich’s head and blood coming from his nose. Janesich was still conscious and able to answer some basic questions, but when Proud looked into the young man’s eyes, he knew he “had to get him out of there and get him to a hospital,” Proud later told OSHA. Photos from the investigation show vomit on the ground near the tractor, blood on the steering wheel, and the blood-stained metal bar still wedged into the Ripper.

At approximately 3 p.m., they arrived at Tioga Medical Center, from which Janesich was airlifted some 80 miles to Trinity Hospital in Minot. His parents, Jason and Toni (“Momma and Poppa Jay”) had received a call alerting them to their son’s injuries and drove seven hours to reach him. Barely 24 hours after being found, Nicholas Janesich died with his parents by his side. A GoFundMe site set up by friends for medical and funeral expenses says that, when it became clear that their only child would not survive, the Janesiches asked that his heart be donated in the hope that this might save another person’s life. Doctors were unable to carry out their wish.

Without knowing the specifics of Janesich’s case, Dr. Alexandra Stillman, director of concussion, traumatic brain injury, and neurorehabilitation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said, “Two hours can be the difference between life and death” with a traumatic brain injury. “It’s really just an effort to beat the clock.”

Nicholas Janesich’s death is far from an isolated incident. Building oil and natural gas pipelines is one of the deadliest jobs in America. Previous reporting has focused on the high death tolls among extraction workers—those who produce the nation’s oil and natural gas. But this is the first independent investigation to compile and present fatality rates for those who build the nation’s oil and gas pipelines, and the findings are not pretty. In 2016, oil and gas pipeline construction workers died on the job 3.6 times more often than the average American worker. And 2016 saw both the highest fatality rate and the highest number of deaths for these workers since 2012. If we add the deaths of workers whose job it is to maintain and monitor the pipelines as they carry the fuels (pipeline transport), 2016 was the deadliest year for oil and gas pipeline workers since 2009.

The first year that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the number of oil and gas pipeline construction workers who died at work was 2003. My findings reveal that, since then, their on-the-job fatality rate has averaged 4.3 times more than the national average, reaching highs of approximately seven times greater than the national average in both 2005 and 2009. The number of deaths increased by 60 percent, from 15 in 2003 to 25 in 2009—the year with the most oil and gas pipeline construction worker deaths ever recorded.

A construction worker specializing in pipe-laying sandblasts a section of pipeline on July 25th, 2013, outside Watford City, North Dakota.

These findings are consistent with the oil and gas industry as a whole, which is regularly found to be among the deadliest in the nation. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began investigating increasing deaths among oil and gas extraction workers in 2005, finding that, in 2014, they suffered a fatality rate nearly seven times greater than that of the average American worker. For the last 10 years, oil and gas extraction workers have had one of the highest fatality rates in the nation, reaching a high of 7.5 times more than the national average in 2012. Though the BLS annually publishes fatality rates for select groups of workers, it has only occasionally done so for oil and gas extraction, and has never done so for pipeline workers. So, I analyzed the data and calculated the rate myself. (A detailed methodology, data, and findings are available on the Pacific Standard website.)

On the campaign trail in August of 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of wanting to go after “oil and natural gas production that employs some 10 million Americans.” In reality, employment in oil and gas extraction nationally is significantly smaller, having dropped from its modern high of nearly 588,000 people in 2014 to fewer than 380,000 in 2016. Employment in oil and gas pipeline construction is smaller still, though it more than doubled from 2004 to 2017, from 68,300 to 143,800 workers. These jobs collectively are not only deadlier than most, they are also more likely to result in serious injury. Energywire reports that, from January 1st, 2015, to October 31st, 2016, oil and gas pipeline construction workers had some of the highest rates of serious injuries on the job among industries with more than 100,000 employees, and oil and gas extraction workers had the highest.

Put simply, the more we drill for oil and natural gas and the more pipelines that are built to carry these resources, the more workers die on the job.  

Three days after Janesich’s death, at the near opposite end of the 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, Troy Dolen was at work in the rural farmlands of Mount Sterling, Illinois. A tall man with the telltale paunch of middle age, skin weathered brown from a lifetime of outdoor work, and a graying goatee, Dolen, 43, was born and raised in the nearby town of Winchester, population 1,480. A member of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 477 out of Springfield, Illinois, he had been hired to work on DAPL by Precision Pipeline. (The details that follow were compiled from interviews and OSHA inspection records received via a Freedom of Information Act request.)  

Dolen was part of the “rough clean-up crew,” clearing an area where DAPL construction had occurred that day and loading equipment to be moved to the next work site. Excavators that had been used to dig trenches for the pipeline were being loaded onto lowboy truck trailers. Temperatures were pushing 90 degrees with extreme humidity, and the crew had been doing physical labor in the direct sun since 9 a.m. Coworkers described Dolen as looking very tired by 2 p.m., soaked in sweat, and “as though he was not cognizant of where he was,” according to OSHA. Rather than require rest or send him home, a decision was made to keep Dolen at work, moving him from cleaning equipment to the seemingly far more dangerous position of flagger, in which he bore responsibility for guiding traffic safely through the work area.  

Sometime between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., Dolen, likely suffering the effects of heat exhaustion, took respite underneath the flatbed of a parked lowboy trailer, OSHA reports. At 4 p.m., the driver of the one-ton truck, unaware of Dolen’s presence, pulled forward, dragging Dolen under the wheels and crushing him to death. Dolen’s widow and the mother of his two daughters, Cindy Jo, sued the truck driver and his employer, Signor Trucking, alleging negligence. Signor, in turn, sued Dolen’s employer, Precision Pipeline, alleging poor and negligent training and supervision. In February of 2018, both cases were voluntarily dismissed and appear to have been settled. The details were not made public. (Signor Trucking did not respond to a request for comment.)  

Pump jacks and a gas flare are seen near Williston, North Dakota, on September 6th, 2016. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Both Janesich and Dolen had been members of LIUNA, which represents many of the nation’s pipeline workers, including 1,100 DAPL workers. To understand why pipeline construction can be so fatal to workers, I arrange to meet LIUNA organizer Evan Whiteford in the town of Williston, less than 50 miles southwest of Tioga. It is Halloween night, 2016, and, as I reach the outskirts of town, it feels as though I am entering Mordor. Bursts of red and yellow flames shoot up out of the earth, illuminating the pitch darkness. These are the byproducts of oil fracking, the natural gas and methane that are burned away by producers drilling for oil. When they are not required to capture the natural gas, the cheapest option is to release it at the wellhead by either venting it directly into the air or burning it off, resulting in a flare. North Dakota produces so many such flares that they are visible from space. As I continue driving, the flares are like runway lights guiding me into town.  

The next day, I hop into Whiteford’s black pick-up truck in the parking lot of my hotel, which sits along a burgeoning strip of bars, dollar stores, gun shops, striptease clubs, and hardware stores that have arrived on the frontier in the last decade to service the oil industry. Whiteford has lived in the Williston area for more than six years, but the Landmark Suites hotel is so indistinguishable from the dozens of other nondescript hotels that have popped up seemingly overnight that he initially drives right past it.  

Dressed in faded work jeans and a checkered, long-sleeved shirt covering a generous belly, and with a brown goatee on his round face, Whiteford greets me with a firm handshake and a wary smile. He wears a Team Hoyt Archery baseball cap—a hunting-bow manufacturer. Like many oil workers I have met, Whiteford is a military veteran. After ending his Navy service over a decade ago, he began “pipelining” across nearly a dozen states before moving to North Dakota in 2011.  

Williston is so small that it takes all of about five minutes to exit it as we head into open country and toward DAPL. The view is typical northwest North Dakota: flat, dry, and empty except for the abundant and now quite familiar oil infrastructure. Below ground, Whiteford tells me, are thousands of miles of pipelines, as “if you dropped a handful of toothpicks on a map of North Dakota.” He is referring primarily to gathering lines, pipelines that carry raw product from production wells to storage tanks or to larger transmission lines, such as DAPL, which carry the product across the country. A third type of pipeline for distribution brings the product directly into homes and businesses.  

All told, there are some 2.5 million miles of pipelines moving natural gas, crude oil, gasoline, and other refined products across the United States, enough to circle the Earth about 100 times. Of these, 297,537 miles are natural gas transmission lines, and just 75,695 miles are crude oil pipelines. As of 2014, almost 95 percent of this total mileage for crude oil pipelines was concentrated in 20 states, with the vast majority found in Texas (nearly 30 percent), followed by Oklahoma, Wyoming, California, Kansas, Louisiana, and then North Dakota. Laying all those pipes is no simple endeavor. A large interstate transmission pipeline like DAPL is a multistage process, with crews installing more than a mile of pipeline per day. Almost every step involves heavy machinery and the skilled use of complex equipment, and presents its own unique hazards. While some pipelines are built aboveground, the vast majority of U.S. oil and natural gas pipes are, like DAPL, buried in the earth.  

In the first stage of construction, a crew clears a right of way, making sure the area of land where the pipeline will be built is entirely denuded of forest and grassland (including most animal habitat), as well as human structures. The path cleared for DAPL is 85 to 150 feet wide along its 1,200-mile length. Next, heavy equipment such as backhoes and ditchers are used to dig the trench in which the pipeline will be laid. Depending on the terrain, explosives may be needed to blast rock or other obstacles. Federal regulations require that large pipelines be buried at least 30 inches below ground in rural areas and at greater depths in more populated places. DAPL is buried approximately six and a half feet into the earth.  

Industry estimates suggest that roughly 500 construction workers are needed to build each 100 miles of pipeline. Energy Transfer originally stated that 12,000 people would be temporarily employed in the construction of DAPL, revising the number down to 10,000 after construction was underway, though there is no way to independently verify these numbers. A 2014 economic assessment conducted for Dakota Access, LLC, estimated that much of this labor would be “temporary, for seasonal periods less than a year.” An Energy Transfer spokesperson told me that, once construction was completed, a mere 51 permanent jobs were created across all four states through which DAPL passes.  

After the trench has been dug, prefabricated pipes are strapped onto flatbed trucks and brought to the construction area, where they are offloaded and laid out in a line. Transporting and positioning each section of pipe, called a joint, can be treacherous, and my investigation reveals that being crushed by pipe is an all-too-common cause of injury and death. DAPL pipe is made of epoxy-coated heavy steel averaging 30 inches in diameter and five-eighths of an inch thick. Individual joints are typically 40 to 80 feet long, and the heaviest pipes can weigh as much as 15,680 pounds apiece. All told, a pipeline like DAPL can require some 80,000 or more individual joints. A machine called a sideboom picks up and lowers each joint, as directed by stringing crews, laying them end-to-end alongside the trench. Another machine can be brought to the site to bend pipe, if needed, to fit unique terrain. Professional welders weld and seal the joints, after which an additional chemical coating is typically sprayed onto the pipes.  

The sidebooms are then used to lower the lengths of pipe into the trench in sections. When a large enough section of pipe is successfully welded together and in the ground, a crew covers it with soil, followed by another crew that restores the land above it. The pipeline route is supposed to remain identifiable (to prevent an inadvertent and potentially deadly rupture of a line), and while vegetation is allowed to grow there, large trees and major structures are generally prohibited.  

From the cab of Whiteford’s truck, a stretch of blackened earth suddenly catches my eye, trailing off in a wide straight line toward the horizon. The sight is so jarring and discordant that I first think it is a mirage. It looks like a scorched-earth runway, or the pathway left behind by an alien spaceship.

Whiteford pulls over and stops in front of a bright orange sign atop a yellow pole that reads:

DAPL-ETCO operations Management, LLC, an Energy Transfer Affiliated Company

This, then, is a completed section of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The black earth is freshly laid topsoil, beneath which lies the pipeline stretching for miles in either direction.

I ask Whiteford what he loves about pipelining, and the answer is just about everything. “I love the nature of the work,” he says. “You develop a family life on the road with people you work with. I’ve never felt more at ease than working with these guys.” It reminds him of life in the military, including putting your life into the hands of those around you. “I have faith in these guys. I know how they are.”

Whiteford assures me that safety is everyone’s priority. “In the industry, yes, there are risks. Yes, things do happen. Can we minimize them? You’re damn right, and we do. We do the best we can to minimize them.” Every large-scale company for which he has worked has its own safety department, managers, and programs. He explains their desire to maintain a solid “safety score and reputation,” which affects what jobs the company can get and how much it will be paid. The safety score is derived from the company’s record of injuries and fatalities.

Of course, Whiteford adds, “anything man-made can fail.”

Oil and natural gas production in the U.S. both surged between 2005 and 2015, driven largely by advances in fracking technologies coupled with the deregulatory zeal of the George W. Bush administration, which allowed fracking to get underway with limited government intervention or oversight. “I was out here working in the field during the boom. It was chaos,” Whiteford says. “There was a lot of ‘just get it in, get it done’ … a lot of injuries. There were a lot of leaks, and just the quality of the work wasn’t there. I don’t think anyone here wants to see the boom again.”

During that period, U.S. oil production leapt 110 percent and natural gas 40 percent. By 2012, the U.S. was, and remains today, the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas combined.

North Dakota has been at the heart of this boom, with oil production, almost exclusively via fracking, more than 10 times greater today than it was in 2006. Nationally, the boom was accompanied by a 70 percent rise in oil and natural gas extraction worker fatalities, from 85 in 2003 to 144 in 2014—the highest number of oil and gas worker deaths ever reported by the BLS in a single year, according to the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions.

sharp increase in pipeline construction accompanied the production boom, with the number of miles of pipelines carrying oil and other hazardous liquids tripling from 2006 to 2016. Pipelines carrying all hazardous liquids (including oil) and natural gas built after 2010 suffer failures at a higher rate than pipelines built at any time in the last century, according to an analysis of federal data by industry watchdog Pipeline Safety Trust. Compared to the previous decade, pipelines built since 2010 carrying oil and other hazardous liquids are more than twice as likely to suffer incidents, and those carrying natural gas are over five times more disaster-prone. In other words, the newer the pipe, the more likely it is to rupture, leak, spill, or explode. “The push to build new pipelines to transport abundant shale supplies appears to be having a materially adverse impact on pipeline safety,” reported S&P Global Market Intelligence in 2015.

The number and rate of oil and gas extraction worker deaths actually decreased in 2015 and again in 2016 as production ebbed, but the number of pipeline worker deaths increased. By 2016, the number of pipeline incidents causing fatalities or serious injury (those requiring hospitalization) to workers and the general public reached its highest level since 2009, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

OSHA inspection reports reveal that, for pipeline builders and those whose job it is to maintain the lines, death comes in a multitude of ways. Just a few days before I visited Williston, a pipeline worker for Willow Creek Companies in Colorado was moving toward a sideboom when he inadvertently dislodged a load of pipes and was killed when three of them, weighing 2,000 pounds apiece, crushed him inside of a trench. In February of 2017, a worker for Phillips 66 Pipeline, LLC, owned by Phillips 66 (a partial owner of DAPL) doing maintenance, or “pigging,” on a natural gas pipeline was burned to death in a pipeline fire and explosion in Louisiana. And in March of 2017, a U.S. Pipeline worker in Georgia was crushed to death under the weight of a 12,000-pound, 49-foot-long joint when it fell from the delivery truck. In July of 2017, a 20-year-old worker was killed at the Wisconsin headquarters of DAPL subcontractor Michels Corporation, when a 1,500-pound pipe he was inspecting fell and crushed him. In September of 2017, a pipeliner with Pumpco Pipeline Construction in Texas was clearing a right-of-way when he was struck and crushed by a motor grader. In October of 2017, a pipeliner was conducting maintenance on a TransCanada-owned natural gas pipeline in Ohio when the pipeline blew, spewing natural gas with such force that he was thrown backward against a fence and instantly killed, according to Marcellus Drilling News. In December of 2017, a Pipeline Systems, Inc.,worker in West Virginia was killed when an excavator carrying a section of pipe slid down a hill and crushed him to death.

There is a similarly horrifying list of ways that extraction workers are killed on the job throughout the Bakken and across the nation. In 2017, the AFL-CIO warned in its annual report Death on the Job that escalating fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas sector raise “serious concerns about an industry wrought with dangerous working conditions and largely exempt from protective regulations.” For the fourth time in the last five years, the AFL-CIO report named North Dakota the riskiest state in the nation in which to work, with a higher worker death rate than any other.

“It’s a Wild West culture. Whatever is the quickest and cheapest is what happens,” LIUNA–North Dakota campaign director Kevin Pranis told me in September of 2016. He cited a combination of a lack of experience by many owners and inadequate oversight of worker safety by regulators.

Eric Brooks, area director for OSHA’s Bismarck office, tells me that, prior to Janesich’s death, OSHA had not inspected a single work site along the Dakota Access Pipeline at any point during the previous six months. Brooks has just eight inspectors covering every job site in North Dakota, from grocery stores and factories to pipelines and oil fields. “Basically, you’re more likely to win the lottery than see an OSHA inspector in North Dakota,” Pranis said. The AFL-CIO finds that it would take OSHA over 100 years to inspect all job sites in the state just once, and such understaffing is not unique to North Dakota. “The agency was founded in 1970, and it hasn’t substantially increased the number of investigators in 25 years,” Brooks laments.

Complicating matters is the limited accountability built into the regulatory structure, as well as strategies that the oil and gas industry has employed both to take advantage of these weaknesses and to further reduce its own liability. Tangled corporate structures and webs of temporary employment, while not entirely exclusive to the oil industry, offer many advantages to the largest companies. Dakota Access, LLC, the developer of DAPL, is owned by Energy Transfer Partners, L.P., which is owned by Energy Transfer Equity, L.P., of which LE GP, LLC, is the general partner. The Bakken Pipeline, of which DAPL is a part, is a joint venture between majority owner Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66 Partners, MLP (owned by Phillips 66), and MarEn Bakken Company, LLC, described as an “entity” owned by MPLX, L.P. (owned by Marathon Petroleum Corporation), and Enbridge Energy Partners, L.P. (owned by Enbridge). None of these companies hired any of the workers who actually built DAPL. Instead, Dakota Access, LLC, hired two contractors—Precision Pipeline Services, LLC, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is owned by Precision Acquisition, LLC, which is owned by MasTec, Inc., of Coral Gables, Florida, and Michels Pipeline Construction, a division of Michels Corporation of Brownsville, Wisconsin—which then hired workers directly and subcontracted with smaller companies.

“It is common industry practice to hire independent pipeline construction companies that specialize in this area,” an Energy Transfer spokesperson wrote Pacific Standard. “Safety is Energy Transfer’s top priority. We would never enact any policies or measures that would compromise the safety of anyone associated with any of our projects.”

Janesich and Dolen had both been hired as temporary employees to work on DAPL: Janesich by Indianhead Pipeline Services, LLC, of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, which was working as a subcontractor to Precision Pipeline, and Dolen by Precision Pipeline itself. Surprisingly, OSHA only tracks and holds accountable employers—generally just the immediate employer—when assessing harms to workers, leaving the parent companies and their investors largely shielded from public scrutiny, legal liability, and damage to the companies’ safety records. “The people with the most resources end up with the least amount of liability,” says retired OSHA assistant regional administrator Richard Wingo.

These tactics also save money. Rather than hire permanent full-time salaried employees, many companies hire contractors and subcontractors on a job-by-job basis, which in turn hire short-term workers to perform these jobs. “They use those subcontractors because they can get them cheaper,” says Gary Beevers, former international vice president of the United Steelworkers union, whose membership includes pipeline workers. According to an analysis by industry advisory group ISN, oil and gas contractors and subcontractors have had higher incident rates resulting in harm to their workers when compared to in-house employees.*

You won’t find the names LE GP, Energy Transfer Partners, or Energy Transfer Equity in association with any public federal investigations of Janesich’s or Dolen’s deaths. These companies had no direct oversight of the job sites where the accidents took place, and OSHA did not hold any of them accountable for the deaths. The only companies held to account are Indianhead Pipeline Services and Precision Pipeline.

OSHA cited Indianhead for Janesich’s death, finding the company guilty of a “serious” violation for failing to provide a safe workplace, and issuing an $8,873 fine. The company fought the judgment and reached a settlement resulting in the violation being downgraded to “Other-Than-Serious,” and the fine reduced to just $5,000. Precision Pipeline was neither cited nor fined for Janesich’s death. Instead, OSHA issued it a “hazard alert letter,” recommending that the company notify its subcontractors of modifications made to its equipment. The death of Troy Dolen did not result in any citation or penalty, OSHA area director Barry Salerno tells me. OSHA issued Precision Pipeline another hazard alert letter, Salerno says, this time encouraging it to better evaluate employees for heat-stress conditions.

According to the North Dakota Public Service Commission, Janesich’s is the only death that occurred in the state during DAPL construction. “This particular accident was under very unusual circumstances,” Jim Rooney, president of Indianhead, told me in September of 2016 of Janesich’s death, emphasizing that, as a union employer, Indianhead has extensive training programs for workers and prioritizes safety. “If you’re trying to find a bad story on Dakota Access,” he added, “I’m not the guy for you.”

Wading through thousands of pages of documents posted online by the North Dakota PSC, I found documentation of 11 workers (including Janesich), employed by a variety of companies, who suffered injuries during DAPL construction, including a fractured vertebra requiring two days of hospitalization, a concussion, a back injury, a knee injury, and several cut fingers. No similar public reporting exists in any other state through which DAPL passes. It took finding an OSHA report of a Precision Pipeline worker fatality in Illinois, local news reports of a “man run over by a trailer” in Mount Sterling, a Freedom of Information Act request, and a good deal of sleuthing to determine that Troy Dolen had been killed while working on DAPL.

“It is difficult for everyone when a tragedy occurs and our hearts go out to their families,” an Energy Transfer spokesperson wrote in an email to Pacific Standard when asked to comment on the deaths of Janesich and Dolen. “It is our hope that this never happens on any project. Safety is our first priority; the safety of our employees and those who work on our projects, the safety of the communities through which we pass and the safety of the environment.”

Energy Transfer refused to provide me with a tally of workers injured or killed during construction of DAPL or a list of subcontractors hired to work on the pipeline, instead directing me back to OSHA. Both Precision Pipeline and Michels Corporation failed to respond to multiple requests for comment on this story, including a request for a list of each company’s DAPL subcontractors. Without such a list, it is impossible to determine if Janesich and Dolen were the only people who lost their lives building the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Energy Transfer “will be lily-white and clean on this,” says former United Steelworkers vice president Gary Beevers. “Usually it doesn’t impact the pipeline operator at all.”

We know what we know about Janesich’s and Dolen’s deaths because OSHA is required to investigate on-the-job fatalities. However, oil field companies are exempt from a suite of basic worker protections, the likely result of industry lobbying, and innumerable oil and gas work sites across the country are subject to limited OSHA oversight. OSHA has categorized building oil and gas pipelines, drilling oil and gas wells, and support activities such as cementing, chemically treating, and cleaning out the wells as “low-hazard industries,” and, as a result, companies with 10 employees or fewer are exempt from OSHA inspection until after an incident—such as a fatality or serious injury—has occurred, or in limited cases when a complaint or agency referral has been made. They are also exempt from keeping records of employee injuries or illnesses unless three or more workers are hospitalized at once. “You’ve got one of the highest injuries and fatalities rates, and it’s a ‘low-hazard industry’?” OSHA’s Brooks asks disdainfully.

And even where OSHA has authority, it is limited. The federal government classifies oil and gas drilling and related activities as a subset of the mining sector, but rather than falling under the jurisdiction of the Mine Safety and Health Act, they are subject to the far less stringent OSHA regulations, as detailed in the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report. Compared to the MSHA, which requires mandatory comprehensive inspection, OSHA has no requirement for routine inspections of work sites, has comparatively limited options for issuing citations both before and after a death or injury occurs, and has notably low and ineffective fines. This weaker oversight may explain why I found that the oil and gas workers with the most dangerous jobs—drillers—regularly have a higher fatality rate than even coal workers, and why the AFL-CIO reports that oil and gas workers frequently account for between 70 and 80 percent of all mining deaths.

Phillip Chambers, a driller for Raven Drilling, talks on a phone while drilling for oil in the Bakken shale formation on July 23rd, 2013, outside Watford City, North Dakota.
Phillip Chambers, a driller for Raven Drilling, talks on a phone while drilling for oil in the Bakken shale formation on July 23rd, 2013, outside Watford City, North Dakota. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Another potential explanation for why notoriously deadly coal mining is often safer than oil and gas drilling is the fact that coal workers have long been unionized, while U.S. oil and gas extraction workers are not. Rebecca Reindel, senior safety and health specialist at the AFL-CIO, says, “The oil and gas industry is mostly (if not entirely) not unionized [which is] one of the reasons why they are so dangerous.” Unionization among oil and gas pipeline workers is higher than the industry at large, likely a result of these jobs overlapping with more typically unionized industries, such as the construction trades, or the nation’s refineries, where many workers are represented by the United Steelworkers, including some pipeliners who maintain the lines that carry fuels in and out of refineries. Energy Transfer maintains that the Dakota Access Pipeline was constructed using 100 percent union labor. It hired Precision Pipeline and Michels Pipeline, both union companies, which in turn hired union labor, including Dolen and Janesich, and this may explain why there were only two deaths (that we know of) during DAPL construction.

“Run the numbers,” LIUNA’s Whiteford said, arguing that workers represented by unions have far fewer fatalities compared to non-union workers. I did, and Whiteford is right. Across the U.S., non-union workers accounted for twice as many oil and gas pipeline construction fatalities in 2016 and 2017 than those represented by a union, according to OSHA records.

OSHA may lack resources and authority, but it has historically been well-respected for its culture of concern for those it is tasked with protecting. The same is not routinely true for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the agency responsible for ensuring the integrity of the nation’s pipelines. A Democratic aide who works for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which regularly drafts legislation seeking to make the PHMSA a more forceful regulator, calls the PHMSA variously a “so-called regulator” and a “terrible regulator.” It’s a “small, underfunded agency that’s outgunned by industry,” that tends to view “the companies as its clients, rather than the American people,” the aide, who requested anonymity, complains.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has made matters considerably worse. The Washington Post reported that a hiring freeze followed by a wave of early retirements at OSHA has eliminated managerial staff across its more than 70 field offices such that, by September of 2017, OSHA had lost 6 percent of its permanent workers, or 119 people. Forty safety inspectors were among those who left the agency, NBC found. The Department of Labor, of which OSHA is a part, has been described as “an empty house” by lawyers at the workplace safety law firm Conn Maciel Carey. Many leadership roles have gone unfilled, including that of OSHA secretary, resulting in a halt to any major new initiatives.

OSHA’s current budget is lower than what it was in 2010, reports Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA. Moreover, cuts made in 2017 include 10 percent from OSHA’s Safety and Health Standards section, $2 million from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and $4 million from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Barab writes in his newsletter Confined Space.

Under Trump, OSHA has been reoriented to focus on eliminating regulations and limiting penalties, enforcement actions, and the responsibilities placed on employers. OSHA is “actively rolling back significant worker health and safety regulations that were promulgated and implemented under the Obama administration,” says Shanna Devine, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen. The AFL-CIO finds that more than a dozen Obama-era worker protection regulations have been removed from OSHA’s active agenda, and a rule requiring that companies disclose safety, health, and labor violations to qualify for federal contracts has been repealed.

Much of my analysis uses data that employers are legally obligated to supply to OSHA and the BLS, which the agencies are required to make publicly available on their websites. But OSHA “has narrowed the criteria it now uses for posting worker fatality data to its website,” reports online news source InsideOSHA, and has discontinued the practice of highlighting worker fatalities on its homepage. It has repealed rules related to employers’ obligations to keep accurate injury and illness records and has sought to limit public reporting of this data. According to law firm Conn Maciel Carey, OSHA has dramatically scaled back the practice of issuing press releases detailing employer failures resulting in OSHA death and injury investigations. And Trump’s 2019 proposed budget calls for slashing the Department of Labor budget and cutting $6.3 million from the PHMSA.

“Workers aren’t going to get the help from OSHA we would have under a Democratic-controlled OSHA,” explains former United Steelworkers’ Gary Beevers, now a labor liaison with Brent Coon & Associates law firm in Beaumont, Texas. So long as people sympathetic to business are in positions of authority, he thinks that addressing failures in pipeline protections is essentially off the table.

Meanwhile, worker safety may be even more compromised by the oil boom itself. Overproduction, including that from North Dakota, contributed to a global oil glut, causing prices to plummet from $105 per barrel in July of 2014 to $31 per barrel in January of 2016. Profits for the biggest companies cratered, and a large number of smaller companies filed for bankruptcy. This created a new problem for producers. “You’re taking something that used to be profitable at $70 [per barrel], and to keep it going at $35 or $40 requires a lot of techniques, including putting more pressure on contractors to do more for less,” says LIUNA’s Kevin Pranis.

In the wake of the bankruptcies, private equity companies flocked to the oil and gas sector, buying companies buried in debt on the cheap, stripping them for parts—including laying off workers—until they operated at bare bones and could be sold off at a profit. Pranis worries that this predatory investing threatens worker safety, pointing out that these private equity companies typically know little about local oil industry operations and care exclusively about the bottom line.

“I can tell you this,” Beevers says. “Mainly when we see these kinds of accidents in the industry, it’s because the company’s trying to save money and cut corners, wanting to do more for less and with less people.”

The cost-cutting has worked. Industry journal S&P Global Platts reports that, from 2013 to 2017, the amount of money spent in the Bakken fell by $2.4 million per well.

The funerals for Nicholas Janesich and Troy Dolen were held on the same day, Friday, September 2nd, 2016. The memorial service for Dolen was held at the Daws Family Funeral Home in his hometown of Winchester, Illinois. The visitation service for Janesich took place at Grace Bible Chapel in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Afterward, his closest friends burned rubber in his honor, roaring through the streets in a black truck, dark clouds billowing in their wake, a white bandana emblazoned with an image of Janesich waving out of the window. Samantha Bluntach posted a video of the tribute on Facebook, where a photo of Janesich showed him dressed in full racing gear, his back to the camera, standing protectively over his racecar.

Janesich’s obituary included “The Racer’s Prayer”:

Lord, I pray as I race today, keep me safe along the way,
not only me but others too as they perform the jobs they do.

One year later, in September of 2017, Trump headlined a rally at an oil refinery in the heart of the Bakken. “The Dakota Access Pipeline is finally open for business!” Trump declared. Standing at his side was “Fracking King” Harold Hamm, the so-called Baron of the Bakken, chief executive officer of Continental Resources (one of the Bakken’s largest producers) and an early and committed backer of both DAPL and Trump for president.

Trump called North Dakota an inspiration to the rest of the nation and a reminder of what can happen when we stop “obstructing American jobs.” He celebrated the restrictions he had lifted on shale oil and “energy of all types” and the regulations he had cut. In this, Trump was not exaggerating. An analysis by Politico reveals that his administration has all but frozen the regulatory process, such that, by February of 2018, 1,500 regulations proposed during the Obama administration but never finalized were withdrawn or removed from active consideration, including, Reuters reports, nearly 300 rules specifically related to energy production and environmental protection.

Putting aside how dangerous the jobs are, or even the fact that there are workers involved, Trump effused: “Harold Hamm, he puts a straw in the ground and oil flies out. That’s why he’s rich, I guess.”

DAPL became operational in June of 2017. By October, North Dakota reached an all-time record high of 14,250 producing wells, according to Platts. By December of 2017, overall U.S. oil production surged past the high reached at the peak of the boom in 2015, and then kept going, surpassing the highest production ever recorded in U.S. history in 1970.

The industry analysts at Platts expect the growth in oil production in North Dakota to continue, citing two key factors: “Producers have been able to more easily reach US Gulf Coast and international buyers following the startup this summer of the 520,000 b/d Dakota Access Pipeline”; and “Producers in the Bakken have focused on improving efficiencies and cutting costs.” Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, called DAPL “a game-changer” when speaking to the Grand Forks Herald.

(Photo illustration: Getty Images/Pacific Standard. Trump and Friends Cash In: Members and backers of the Trump administration are profiting from DAPL while scheming to make even bigger bucks shipping oil and petrochemicals overseas.)

It has certainly changed history for Hamm, who announced the first overseas sale ever for Continental Resources in October, shipping more than a million barrels of Bakken crude to China. Energy Transfer is also cashing in on the oil and natural gas production bonanza, joining the burgeoning multibillion-dollar petrochemical market fueled by all of these newly abundant, “cheap” fossil fuels flowing to Gulf Coast refineries. It has formed a joint venture with China’s Satellite Petrochemical to build a new export terminal in Texas from which to ship ethane to China. Navigator, a shipping company specializing in petrochemicals, with which Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross recently severed ties, estimates over $100 billion in new construction in the U.S. petrochemical industry is on the horizon. Navigator is shipping ethylene from a terminal in Houston to locations in Europe and the Far East, and has plans to team up with a subsidiary of Koch Industries to build a new ethylene export terminal on the Gulf Coast in 2020. It is anxiously awaiting the completion of Energy Transfer Partners Mariner East pipelines so as to ship petrochemicals from Energy Transfer’s Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, export facility.

The ramping-up of production in the Bakken and associated infrastructure is, then, a part of a larger and highly lucrative plan that goes well beyond the oft-repeated promises of “securing America’s energy future,” or even meeting the demand from U.S. consumers for gasoline for their cars. Rather, key backers and members of the Trump administration are working to turn the U.S. into not only the world’s dominant producer of fossil fuels, but also its one-stop shop for refining and exporting petrochemicals to foreign markets. In June of 2017, Trump declared that it would no longer be U.S. policy to pursue “energy independence”; rather, he would initiate a new era of “American energy dominance.”

This new plan for U.S. global fossil fuel dominance, paired with Trump’s policy of expanding and fast-tracking new drilling and pipeline construction while simultaneously decreasing regulatory oversight, is destined to increase the number of oil and gas production and pipeline workers who are injured or die on the job. But even the toughest regulation, enforcement, and oversight cannot eliminate the harms inherent to oil and gas operations generally and to fracking specifically, nor the broader societal costs imposed by continued fossil fuel production and use—the single largest contributor to global climate change. All along the way, from exploration, extraction, transport, and refining to the burning of fossil fuels, havoc is wreaked on public health and safety, and devastation is brought to the environment—polluting the air, water, and soil on which life depends—with harms that are disproportionately borne by low-income people and communities of color. These operations have also long been disproportionately concentrated in indigenous lands, undermining fundamental rights and sovereignty.

This is why so much effort has been focused on helping fossil fuel workers shift to renewable energy jobs, which are far less deadly. Since 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported just six deaths total in solar and wind installation combined. Nearly a decade ago, the United Steelworkers and the American Wind Energy Association formed a joint “Partnership for Progress.” And LIUNA highlights its efforts to boost employment for its workers in green energy jobs, noting that more than 1,300 of its members began working in wind, solar, and geothermal in California alone in just the last several years. Drs. Steven Sumner and Peter Layde, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined occupational health risks to workers in renewable energy industries compared to fossil fuel industries. They found that more than 1,300 worker deaths could be averted in the coming decade in the U.S. alone by replacing fossil fuel jobs with jobs in renewable energy.

And there is another overlooked option, which would avoid the need for job retraining while helping to solve one of the biggest infrastructure crises facing the nation: shifting workers from oil and gas pipelines to water pipelines. The skills are directly transferable, as the actual work involved in building and maintaining a pipeline is virtually the same regardless of what passes through it. A unique investigation by Economics for Equity and Environment and the Labor Network for Sustainability found in 2013 that water infrastructure projects in the five states through which the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline would pass would generate 137 times more jobs over a 20-year period than those expected from the oil pipeline.

Our nation’s water systems are in dire shape. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure a D and D+ rating, respectively, estimating that some 240,000 water main breaks occur each year, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water. Our water is delivered through one million miles of pipes, many of which were laid a century or more ago and have long since surpassed their planned lifespans. The ASCE cites a 2012 study by the American Water Works Association that estimated that an investment of more than $1 trillion could be needed for water infrastructure over the next 25 years, which means that, even if only a fraction of these funds were allocated, hundreds of thousands of people could be directly employed, ensuring that Americans have better, cleaner, safer, and more secure access to drinking water.

Of course, some of the same dangers confronting oil and gas pipeliners also apply to water pipeline construction. To make these jobs not only greener but also safer, regulatory oversight and enforcement inadequacies would have to be addressed. But the chances that workers and residents will be sickened or die from leaks, explosions, and fires caused by volatile fossil fuels passing through or leaking out of the pipes would be eliminated, and the majority of those construction jobs would shift to more urban and suburban areas, making injuries more easily and rapidly treatable. And when leaks do occur, it will be water, not oil, flowing into the nation’s fields, streams, groundwater, wetlands, and aquifers.

In their standoff against DAPL, the water protectors at Standing Rock invoked the rallying cry “Water is life”—”Mni Wiconi” in Lakota—and now those words are being repeated in efforts to halt pipelines and other fossil fuel projects around the world. Intoned during ceremonies, chanted during marches, yelled amid standoffs against law enforcement, adorned on clothing and banners, and tattooed into flesh, this phrase means that to protect the water is to save life itself.

Prior to arriving in Williston, I had been reporting from Standing Rock, where, over the course of a nearly yearlong protest, a predominantly peaceful Native American-led resistance was met by a heavily militarized police state in a conflict replete with soldiers, warriors, military-grade weaponry, and plenty of people pledging to fight until the death. The Dakota Access Pipeline became the most contentious oil project in modern American history.

“Hoka Hey!” a young Native woman shouted as she led dozens of water protectors on October 27th, 2016, toward a line of hundreds of law enforcement officers, National Guardsmen, and armed private security forces. The Lakota phrase, attributed to legendary Sioux warrior Crazy Horse, is often translated to “This is a good day to die.”

The next day, I spoke with Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Ardyce TakenAlive, a 56-year-old resident of the Oceti Sakowin water protector camp established to halt construction of DAPL before it passed beneath Lake Oahe. “Without water, we are nothing,” TakenAlive told me. The pipeline will destroy not only the tribe’s aquifers, she said, but also the water for all of the communities downstream. “This isn’t an Indian issue; it is a human issue.” And the pipeline is going to break. “Everything that is man-made will break,” TakenAlive said, echoing pipeliner Evan Whiteford. And, of course, they are both correct. Since its completion, the Dakota Access Pipeline has already leaked oil at least five times.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific StandardResearch assistance provided by Erin Wong and Ella Merrill.

*Update—October 19th, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify the employment status of certain subcontracted workers.