A personal story: Dustin Bergsing, Edgar, Montana (with audio)

Telling personal stories
The oil and gas boom has been underway for a number of years in many locations across North America, and many stories have come to light about individuals and families whose lives have been personally affected. This post is part of a regular weekly series of those stories on this blog to help you envision what could happen if drilling expands along the Beartooth Front, and what is possible to keep that from happening.

Today’s story is a tragic tale of neglect by a large oil and gas company that led to the unnecessary death of a young Montana oil worker.

You can see other personal stories in this series by clicking here. Note that you can find more by clicking “Older Posts” at the bottom of the page. 

For more information about the project click here.
For more information about the project click here.

Dustin Bergsing, Edgar, Montana
Part of this post aired on Prairie Public Radio on September 12, 2013. It’s part of a four-part series on injuries and death in North Dakota’s oil fields. Todd Melby was the reporter. The audio of Mr. Melby’s report appears at the end of the post.

“As oil field jobs go, Dustin Bergsing seemed to have a  pretty safe one. He wasn’t swinging pipes on a drilling rig or working with big moving trucks. He was a well watcher, monitoring tank levels in the Bakken near Mandaree, North Dakota.

“He worked alone, often at nights, for a Marathon Oil contractor called Across Big Sky Flow Testing. Once every two hours he climbed a ladder, walked across a metal catwalk, opened hatches and peeked inside a series of giant brown storage tanks that were filled with a mixture of crude oil, gases, and frac water. If one of the tanks was nearing capacity, he changed the flow so another tank would start filling.

“One of the few dangers Bergsing faced was possible exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, also known as H2S gas. It’s an odorless, colorless gas that some wells naturally produce. It can kill a person, so Bergsing wore a yellow H2S monitor on his helmet to warn him of high levels of the deadly gas.

“But something went wrong on the night of January 7, 2012. Just after midnight, Bergsing failed to respond to an alarm indicating that a tank was almost full, so a co-worker came to check on him. That co-worker found Bergsing’s lifeless body on the catwalk.”

What followed was a classic case of industry denial in the face of facts. The initial investigation by OSHA showed that the likely cause of death was hydrocarbon poisoning. No other abnormal chemicals or drugs were found in his body. But Bergsing’s monitor was working, and the medical examiner concluded that the hydrocarbon poisoning was not work related.

Dustin Bergsing
Dustin Bergsing

A surprise witness
This explanation might have prevailed, except Dustin’s mother filed suit against Marathon Oil. During the course of discovery for the trial, a surprise witness came forward. The witness is an environmental engineer with a chemistry degree.

His real name is not revealed in the radio report below because he had been fired from Marathon Oil and he fears that he will lose his present job if his identity becomes known.

What he revealed is that hydrocarbons come from natural gas, a byproduct of crude oil. If that gas isn’t captured or flared properly, it can fill the air and suffocate a person.

The witness was hired by Marathon Oil in October 2011, about three months before Bergsing died. Shortly thereafter the witness noticed that large amounts of hydrocarbon vapors were leaking from oil storage tanks. In the past, Marathon routinely used two flare stacks per tank, but at this point, according to the witness, the company was just using one.

As a result, that natural gas flowed into storage tanks like the ones where Bergsing worked. In a statement under oath, the witness described how he documented the problem with co-workers. He recorded the leaks with an infrared camera. He created a spreadsheet estimating the amount of the leaks. He measured some of the gas levels, and said that, to his belief, the levels were not only toxic, but lethal.

Whistleblower stifled
So he began writing emails to his superiors. He asked why they had reduced the number of flares from two to one. He asked why the piping was undersized during the flowback. The company’s reaction was to punish the witness because he wrote these emails saying that there were compliance issues that needed to be addressed. He says he was told not to write any more emails, but to call instead, because emails could be discovered in a legal proceeding. Marathon actually brought a corporate lawyer up to North Dakota from Texas to tell him how to write emails that would not expose the company.

Then, after a second worker became dizzy in May, 2012, four months after Bergsing died, the witness and two co-workers went out to the well, took measurements and concluded that the oxygen content was less than breathable. It was only after this second incident that Marathon finally took action and began supplying its contractors and employees with air respirators. In June, 2012, less than one year after he started working at Marathon, the witness was fired for “performance reasons.”

Lawsuit settlement. Marathon admits liability
Ultimately this witness’ testimony was decisive. In February 2013 the two sides reached a settlement in the lawsuit. While the details of the settlement were not released, the two sides issued a statement that said in part,

(Marathon Oil) knew or should have known that the oil well and tank facility where Dustin Bergsing worked was unreasonably dangerous due to the presence of a large amount of toxic hydrocarbon gases under pressure in the oil….

(Marathon) was actually warned by an employee that the accumulation of gases at these wells was ultrahazardous, and could result in a death.”

With regard to damages, the statement said that a total had not been calculated “other than to value the case in the seven-figure range.”

About Dustin
The story of Dustin’s unnecessary death is particularly painful because it hits so close to home. Born in Livingston, he lived in Edgar, an unincorporated area in northern Carbon County, with his fiancee Lacey Breding and their daughter McKinley, born less than two months before Dustin’s death.

Dustin, Lacey

Dustin, Lacey and McKinley

A competitive bull rider, Dustin touched many people because of the joy he brought to those around him. “That kid had probably the biggest heart I’ve ever seen on anybody. Big as this world,” said his good friend Jason Bold.

Poster for last year's event. Click to enlarge.

Poster for last year’s event. Click to enlarge.

“Ahhh, he was beautiful,” Breding says. “He was a beautiful man. He had brown hair. And it was always kinda shaggy, curly like my daughter’s. She has his curls. He had the cutest grin. You could not be mad at him if he had a smile on his face. And his face would turn beat red when he would laugh. I could just see it.”

Dustin and Lacey had met a year earlier at the Northern Rodeo Association finals, the same way Lacey’s parents met. The friends who he touched have memorialized him with an annual bull riding event, now in its third year.

Photo of Dustin Bergsing’s H2S monitor (below) courtesy of OSHA.

About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
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8 Responses to A personal story: Dustin Bergsing, Edgar, Montana (with audio)

  1. This is tragic beyond words. One can feel many ways about whether or not companies should develop oil and gas, but surely all of us can agree that these companies have a responsibility to spend some of their profits keeping their workers safe. Especially when it is our children, husbands and loved ones.

  2. Horrifying, and irresponsible beyond words… A tragedy that did not have to happen.

    If only a company valued the safety of their employees as much as it values profiting from their labor.

  3. davidjkatz says:

    What really struck me about this story was the callous disregard the company had for the safety of its employee. We see this over and over across the country. The corporate concern is about profits, nothing else. Local communities need to protect themselves from these dangers — nobody else will do it.

  4. Loren says:

    I grew up with his widow, and yes this is a sad sad story, BUT that doesn’t mean that all oil and gas companies are this negligent, I’ve been in the Bakken for over 4 years now and the safety had come along way! It’s also not just the employers responsibility, it’s also the employees who need to use the safety programs that are provided. The companies give us the tools to make our jobs add safe add possible, it’s the EMPLOYEES who make the job unsafe by not using the safety tools provided! We all want to come home to our families, and taking short cuts and not following the safer procedures makes it the employees fault! I’m not saying this is Dustin’s fault, because it was a freak accident. But that cannot be the reason to stop drilling! Every job and everything we do in life can kill us, it’s how we do the job that determines weather or not we come home at the end of the day or hitch!
    Dustin had an beautiful daughter, and it’s sorely missed, but this cannot be the reason to stop drilling! This natural resource will bring Montana a lot of money and independence and lots of new jobs to keep people like me closer to home instead of being half way across the country!

    • davidjkatz says:

      Thanks for your personal insight.I agree that this unfortunate situation is not, by itself, a reason to stop drilling.

      What people who care about the Beartooth Front are arguing is that this and many other examples of corporate irresponsibility cited on this blog are reasons for local communities to take control of how and under what circumstances drilling takes place. It is our water, our land, our air, our way of life. We recognize the value of the the minerals under the land, but we need to make sure that when the minerals are gone our communities are intact.

  5. Jackline says:

    We need to learn from it not ban it make sure that saftey comes first for employees and comunities
    people are being missled not given all the information and tools tapping our own resources could benifit Montana so much! So we can either bury our heads in the sand and be dependant on the government or we can build industry personally I vote goernment OUT self supporting in. I am for progress and getting away from depending on foriegn resources bring our jobs back home.

  6. Pingback: Milestone: Preserve the Beartooth Front passes 100,000 hits | Preserve the Beartooth Front

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