Another lawsuit filed over oil tank inspection death


Photo by Tim Evanson

These oil storage tanks were photographed in the summer of 2013 at an oil well on a farm in McKenzie County, N.D., west of Watford City.

Last Best News has learned of another lawsuit filed on behalf of a Montana man who died while inspecting oil storage tanks in the Bakken oilfield of North Dakota.

The lawsuit was filed last February in District Court in Sidney by Nicole Buckles, of Glasgow, on behalf of her son, 20-year-old Zachary Buckles, who died on April 28, 2014, while manually gauging crude-oil production tanks near Alexander, N.D.

Defendants named in the suit were Continental Resources, owner of the well site, and subcontractors BH Flowtest, Black Rock Testing and Black Gold Testing. Continental is based in Oklahoma but has corporate offices in Sidney, according to the lawsuit, while all three subcontractors are Montana businesses.

The lawsuit was filed jointly by Edwards, Frickle & Culver, a Billings law firm, and Savage Law Firm, of Sidney. Continental has not yet filed a response to the suit, but the other three defendants, all represented by Billings law firms, have. All three basically denied any responsibility for Buckles’ death and said Buckles’ own negligence contributed at least partly to his death.

The lawsuit claims that Buckles was exposed to deadly vapors without adequate air monitoring equipment or training. The defendants, according to the suit, “in order to maximize output and production for a profit, intentionally, deliberately, and maliciously and with callous disregard for the high probability of injury” to Buckles, required him to manually gauge the oil production tanks.

The defendants breached their duty to maintain a safe, secure work site and failed to protect Buckles from overexposure to hydrocarbon vapors, “all of which was a substantial contributing factor to Zachary’s fatal injuries,” the suit said.

The lawsuit asks for unspecified punitive damages as well as damages on behalf of Buckles’ heirs, who were said to have suffered “serious and severe emotional distress.”

When the Dickinson (N.D.) Press first reported on Buckles’ death, it said that the state medical examiner “found no obvious signs of the cause of death.” However, the story continued, the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Department issued a press release saying that “it is believed that he died as a result of H2S gas exposure,” a reference to hydrogen sulfate.

Two months later, on June 26, 2014, the Dickinson Press reported that Buckles had “succumbed to cardiac arrhythmia,” according to a forensic report from the North Dakota Department of Health.

Buckles later became one of nine oil workers whose deaths were determined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to have been caused by inhaling volatile hydrocarbons between 2010 and the spring of 2015.

The NIOSH report did not list the names of the workers, but Mike Soraghan, a reporter for EnergyWire, was able to identify many of them by examining Occupational Safety and Health Administration records, autopsies and other records.

A law firm in Minnetonka, Minn., filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Billings in July on behalf of Blaine Otto, a Sidney man who was found dead near the oil storage tank he was monitoring near Keene, N.D., on July 18, 2013. That same firm, Bremseth Law, reached a confidential settlement with Marathon Oil in 2013 in a lawsuit over the death of Dustin Bersing, a 21-year-old from Edgar, Mont., who died under similar circumstances.

Otto and Bersing were among the nine workers featured in the NIOSH report, and a spokesman for Bremseth Law said it has been retained by the families of four other oil workers included in the report.

The lawsuit filed by Buckles’ mother has been assigned to District Judge Katherine Bidegaray. The suit said Black Gold Testing had been contracted by Black Rock Testing, which had been contracted by BH FlowTest, which had been contracted by Continental “to perform manual tank gauging and production monitoring activities” on Continental’s well site about 19 miles north of Alexander, N.D.

On April 17, 2014, the suit said, Buckles was dispatched from his home in Glasgow to the well site, which had a battery of 20 tanks supporting five producing oil wells. Early in the morning of April 28, the suit says, Buckles was inspecting two tanks “when he was overcome by exposure to hydrocarbon (petroleum) vapors which, although surviving for an appreciable amount of time, ultimately resulted in his death.”

Soraghan reported on EnergyWire that Buckles was found with his head over a tank hatch.

An obituary in the Glasgow Courier said Buckles had worked in the oilfields since graduating from high school in 2011. He left behind his finance, Naomi Wooley, and an infant son, Cambell James Youngman

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