FREER – In January 2013, Nestor Lerma Jr. paced the perimeter of a dusty oil drilling site, cell phone pressed to his ear, struggling to hear over the noise of diesel engines as he called Danielle Daniel. She was eight months pregnant, and he checked on her each time he climbed down the derrick.
/*<![CDATA[*/ hearstPlaceAd(“AP300”); /*]]>*/ “Some days she gets really stressed. I can hear it in her voice,” Lerma said. “That’s what the oil field is. You have to be away from your family.”
They had been together three years, so Daniel knew all about this life – time away from home, missed holidays, the scent of oil on Lerma’s skin. It was the smell of money. It meant bills would get paid. “I do get scared that one day I’m going to get that phone call,” Daniel said at the time. “That’s the only thing I don’t like about that whole situation. If something happens to J.R., they can replace him. We can’t. We can’t replace him.”
On May 1 this year, a police officer tracked her down to tell her Lerma, 38, was killed – one of at least 34 oil field workers in South Texas who have died on the job in recent years. Something had gone wrong near the end of his shift on a rig in Duval County. Federal investigators haven’t released their report, but he may have been electrocuted. What’s clear is this: Lerma’s death wasn’t an isolated one. Open-records requests, thousands of pages of federal safety investigations, lawsuits and police reports document the human price of the state’s most recent oil boom, when soaring prices crude prices set off of a multiyear drilling frenzy.
Companies poured billions into South and West Texas, creating thousands of jobs with high salaries. Texas crude oil production hit 2.9 million barrels per day in July, roughly equal to Brazil’s daily production last year.
Eagle Ford hit hard
But fatal accidents have shadowed the work, a dark and persistent reminder that the oil field is a place of heavy industry, where mistakes can have fatal consequences.
Texas had half of the country’s oil field deaths last year – 71 of the 142 workers who died in the hunt for hydrocarbons, new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Texas Department of Insurance indicate. In the five years between 2010 and 2014, 615 U.S. oil field workers died. Of those, 270, or 44 percent, were in Texas. In South Texas, workers have been hit by falling equipment, thrown, crushed, burned, electrocuted. They fell. They were scalded. They were run over. They were victims of human error and equipment failures.
They all were men. Mostly young.
Most of the accidents occurred in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale, the 400-mile-long formation discovered in 2008. La Salle County had the most deaths – eight, including three workers in a single explosion last year, the region’s most deadly catastrophe. But some of the South Texas accidents occurred outside the giant field. Areas such as Goliad, Jim Wells or Duval counties were bypassed by the recent shale-drilling bonanza, though they have been home to traditional oil and gas activity for decades.
Even in San Antonio, north of the Eagle Ford, 61-year old Ernesto Valdez was crushed last Aug. 18 when 3,500 pounds of sand for hydraulic fracturing, held in a super sack – a kind of giant duffle bag used for transportation – toppled onto him, police reports show.
The region’s actual death toll is likely higher than 34. The Occupational Safety and Health Ad-ministration’s open investigations for recent accidents aren’t available yet to the public. The number of deaths rose alongside the sheer volume of activity in Texas, said San Antonio at-torney David Ortega, who resigned as mayor of Hollywood Park when his Eagle Ford-related accident work ballooned. “You’re going to have more accidents,” Ortega said. “It’s just a bigger volume of people out there.” This year’s oil price bust has slowed the entire industry, throwing tens of thousands of workers out of a job.
The bust likely will bring down the number of fatalities, too, though so far this year, preliminary reports from OSHA indicate at least a dozen Texas oil field workers have died on the job, including Lerma. The worst accident this year killed three members of the same family, Arturo Martinez, his son Arturo Martinez Jr., and son-in-law, Rojelio Salgado, in March in Upton County in West Texas.
They died in an inferno while working to install a blowout preventer, which seals, controls and monitors a well. OSHA recently proposed $50,400 in penalties and cited their employer, Mason Well Service, for several violations, including allowing smoking near the well. The company can contest the fine and violations. Federal investigators often find safety violations at the site of a worker death, but there’s only so much OSHA can do to penalize a company.
Congress in 1991 set the cap at $7,000 for a serious violation and $70,000 for a willful violation – a rare citation when it can be proved a company intentionally disregarded safety requirements. The amounts have not been increased. Penalties often get whittled down. OSHA may agree to settlements after companies protest, or mitigating factors are taken into account.
In South Texas, the proposed penalties at sites where workers died have averaged $12,963, later knocked down 33 percent, to $8,632.