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Mike Soraghan, E&E reporter
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
WATFORD CITY, N.D. — One thing is clear: Brandon Belk should have been wearing an oxygen mask.
After that, there’s a long list of questions. It starts with a big one. Why did he die?
There’s the mix of solvents and petroleum gunk he was breathing while cleaning a frack tank two days before his death in July 2013. When federal worker safety inspectors showed up, they found the working conditions dangerous.
But there’s also the traces of methadone — a potent and often abused painkiller — found in his bloodstream.
To Belk’s family, it’s clear his job at a company here called Badlands Power Fuels is what led to his death. His autopsy says he died from pneumonia — fluid in the lungs — which points to the chemical exposure.
“It is neglect on so many people’s part,” said his mother, Vikki Daggett. “As far as I’m concerned, Power Fuels killed my son.”
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But the autopsy report also indicates he wouldn’t have died without the methadone and citalopram, an antidepressant for which he had a prescription. And his death certificate states he had no “injury at work.”
To his former employer, that settles it. So, too, for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the North Dakota workers’ compensation system, which has denied death benefits to his 13-year-old daughter.
“The North Dakota Forensic Medical Examiner’s Office report concluded the death was an accident unrelated to the workplace,” wrote Liz Merritt, an executive of Nuverra Environmental Solutions, Power Fuels’ parent company. “We can provide no further details or information regarding this incident.”
It’s more ambiguous for the man who made the call. North Dakota Forensic Examiner William Massello said sometimes he just doesn’t know whether a death is job-related. When that happens, procedures dictate that he just check “no.”
“Sometimes, we might not be sure whether it’s work-related or drug-related, or a combination of both, so we have to check off ‘no,'” Massello said in an interview. “Sometimes the person has an accident, and they go home and they take drugs, too many drugs. And the issue is, what role did the accident play in this? It isn’t clear.”
Who was Brandon Belk?
A husky bear of a guy with a buzz cut, Brandon Belk was the kind of guy you wanted with you in a fight. But his brothers say he’d rather give you a hug.
“Don’t cry. Hug it out” was the epitaph his family wrote in his obituary.
Brandon Belk and his daughter, Mariah Sykes. Photo courtesy of the family.
His mother called him “the biggest mama’s boy there ever was.”
He was also a dad. His daughter lived with her mother in Walla Walla, Wash., but came out to visit him that summer. His Facebook profile photo is a smiling portrait of the two of them. In photos, they ham it up together in goofy-faced selfies.
Belk loved North Dakota. He’d come to the Bakken oil field in 2012 from Walla Walla, then recruited friends and family to come out with him.
Two of his brothers, Jeremy Daggett and Kolby Belk, worked with him at Nuverra.
He liked driving a four-wheeler to the coulee, or ravine, on his sister’s farm outside Minot.
“He told me he was never going back,” said his sister, Nicole Myers, in an interview with the family at her workplace in Minot in July. “He said he wished he’d come out sooner.”
Of course, if he’d come out much sooner, there wouldn’t be the jobs he and his brothers found in North Dakota. Watford City, where they lived and worked, didn’t even have a stoplight before the shale oil boom transformed western North Dakota. Today, it has three traffic signals, a near-constant flow of heavy truck traffic from the oil field and a Wild West reputation.
New apartments are sprouting up around the bulging city. Among them are the long, gray, newish-looking buildings on white concrete at the edge of town where Belk and his brother Kolby lived.
One company that benefited from the transformation of western North Dakota was Power Fuels, which was the largest company in the Bakken Shale providing disposal, treatment and transportation of oil field waste. In 2012, owner Mark Johnsrud agreed to merge the 1,500-employee operation with a company then called Heckmann Corp., which had set out three years before to build the largest environmental services company in the United States. In May 2013, it was re-christened Nuverra Environmental Solutions as the company sought to build a national brand for handling oil field and industrial waste.
Power Fuels’ yard in Watford City is south of town, where trucks rumble by day and night to service the oil field south and east of town. Behind the main buildings, black frack tanks cover a low hill like a coat of paint.
Many others have benefited, as well. North Dakota had the fastest-growing economy of any state last year and, at 2.8 percent, the lowest unemployment rate.
At the same time, it has become one of the most dangerous places in the country to work. Its workplace fatality rate more than doubled between 2007 and 2012. It had the highest workplace death rate of any state in 2011 and 2012.
The rate decreased last year. The number of workplace fatalities dropped from 65 to 55, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Belk’s death is likely excluded from that number.
What happened in the tank?
“Watching fireworks from the window in the ER. My daughter is so sweet. I told her to stay and watch the fireworks everybody else had, and she says no Dad I’m gonna go with you. I love you so much, Mariah Sykes. You are my entire world.”
Belk typed that onto his Facebook page on his Motorola Razr phone from the emergency room of the tiny McKenzie County Hospital in Watford City the night of July 4, 2013. In less than 24 hours, he would be dead.
The day before, July 3, was hot. His brother Kolby had the day off. Jeremy was assigned to clean out tanks, but Brandon volunteered to take his place inside the boxcar-sized frack tank.
Frack tanks in the yard at Badlands Power Fuels. Belk was cleaning out a frack tank in the company yard two days before he died at his home in July 2013. Photo provided by OSHA under FOIA.
The tank cleaners were trying out a new chemical, though there are differing accounts of what it was. Belk told the ER physician he’d used Citrol, a citrus cleaner and degreaser. Massello wrote in his postmortem report that Belk had been exposed to CitruSol, a citric acid cleaner. Company officials told police and OSHA he’d been using TCI 105 H.D., a solvent.
The instructions for TCI 105 H.D. say workers should wear respirators when it’s used in a confined space, such as a frack tank. None of the employees who climbed into the tanks was wearing a respirator.
The tanks also could have had toxic petroleum residues left over from drilling waste, hydraulic fracturing fluid or crude oil. Petroleum vapors have been linked to several deaths in the Bakken, though authorities have been slow to develop consistent methods of investigating such fatalities (EnergyWire, Oct. 27).
Inside, the air stung their eyes and hurt their throats. Tylar Soulia, a friend of Belk who was cleaning another tank, said he lasted about 15 minutes.
“Your face goes numb. Your tongue is numb from tasting it,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe anymore, so I got out.”
Belk was nearly overcome as well. But he managed to pull his bulky frame through the frack tank’s 21-inch hatch. He escaped before passing out, then vomited.
After that, he went home sick, Soulia said.
“He was done for the day,” Soulia said. “We all had really sore throats.”
The next day was the Independence Day holiday. Belk woke up choking, according to what he wrote on Facebook. That night, he still lit fireworks with his brother and daughter.
But he wasn’t feeling festive. His face and eyes were swollen. He told them he felt like he couldn’t breathe because of the swelling in his throat. Jeremy Daggett later told police his brother had coughed up blood.
Close to midnight, he left the fireworks party and went to the small hospital in Watford City. He told the emergency room physician “my throat is closing down.” According to hospital records provided by his family, Belk told the doctor he thought it was related to what he breathed in while cleaning the frack tank the day before.
The doctor saw swelling in his throat and a white spot that was “peeling.”
“Looks like chemical burn [in] my throat,” Belk wrote on Facebook while in the ER. “Woke up choking the other day so I have been afraid to go to sleep massive headache behind [my] eyes so every time I cough it radiates all through my skull.”
Soulia posted a question: “Was it from washing the frac tanks the other day?” No answer was posted.
The doctor, Richard Martin, diagnosed him with pneumonia and sent him home with some antibiotics. He asked Belk to bring back information on the chemical he’d been using. And he had Belk fill out a workers’ compensation form.
That left Belk frustrated, family members said. There was no blood test, no urinalysis.
“Mariah said Daddy wasn’t happy because he wasn’t doing anything to treat him and make him feel better,” Vikki Daggett said.
After they returned home at about 2 a.m., he left a note for Kolby that he wouldn’t be at work but would go in later to find out what the chemical was that he’d been using in the tank. Kolby later told police he heard his brother coughing that morning.
Mariah peeked into his room during the day and thought her father was asleep. She decided not to bother him. So she watched television all day. When her uncle returned at about 5 p.m., he went into his brother’s room to wake him up. Brandon was on the floor. Kolby leaned down and tugged on his leg. It was cold. He called 911.
Twelve days after his death, Mariah typed in a reply to her father’s emergency room message on Facebook.
“I’m glad I could be your world Daddy,” she wrote. “I’ll always miss you!”
Why weren’t there air masks?
Police found drops of blood on Belk’s bed and on the floor. Kolby told police he thought his brother died because of chemicals he was exposed to in the frack tank at Power Fuels.
But when police interviewed a district manager for the company, Les Taylor, he said Belk hadn’t reported any chemical exposure or health problems.
Still, officers notified OSHA. The inspector found a chaotic situation in the company yard. The employees who had cleaned the tanks were inexperienced. No one tested the air in the tanks before they got in. Some didn’t wear eye protection and protective clothing in the confined space. None of them wore a respirator.
Jeremy Daggett said respirators weren’t available to them. When he’d asked for one, he was sent to the paint shop, where he was given a paper dust mask.
During OSHA’s investigation, Nuverra acknowledged a mistake, according to the case file, which EnergyWire obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. “Low-level managers” had sought out new chemicals that could clean out frack tanks faster, but they didn’t have a procedure for making sure they were safe.
The agency fined the company $17,000 for failing to evaluate the danger to the workers in the tanks and failing to train employees to properly handle the hazard.
But when the medical examiner’s report came back, citing the methadone as a prominent factor in his death, OSHA changed its inquiry from a death investigation to a standard inspection.
‘Lethal’ or ‘non-toxic’?
But nowhere in Belk’s autopsy report does it actually say his death was “unrelated to the workplace.”
It lists pneumonia — what the emergency room physician linked to Belk’s job-related complaints — as a primary cause. The report states that Belk had been treated for pneumonia but didn’t discuss what might have caused it.
The report, by Massello, the forensic examiner, indicates the citalopram and methadone played a key role.
“Sick individual ingested lethal combination of prescription-type drugs,” the report explains.
In a “postmortem summary,” Massello wrote that Belk’s death was “consistent” with a “drug overdose.” But another portion of the report listed the concentration of methadone in his blood as “non-toxic.”
No test was run for the petrochemicals Belk could have inhaled in the frack tank, or the cleaning chemicals he was using in the confined space.
Belk’s family members resent that the death certificate makes him sound, in the words of his mother, Vikki Daggett, “like a druggie.” Still, family members don’t have many good answers on why methadone was in his blood. He didn’t have a prescription for it, and family members can’t explain why it would be there.
“I don’t know,” said his mother. “He didn’t share that type of information with me.”
Belk was no stranger to prescription drugs. He was in a car accident when he was 17 and had back pain. His death came a week before a scheduled appointment with a back specialist in Minneapolis.
Police found an array of pill bottles in his apartment to treat chronic pain and depression. Among them were the prescription bottles of citalopram and hydrocodone, an opioid painkiller that’s a generic for Vicodin.
Methadone has gone from being part of treatment for heroin addicts to a treatment for severe pain. But it is also considered dangerous, somewhat overprescribed and often abused. In his previous job in Virginia, Massello was part of several academic papers documenting the increased death rate from methadone overdose in rural Virginia.
Methadone is fairly common in the oil field, Kolby Belk explained. It would be fairly common, he said, for a friend to give another a methadone pill.
A fellow employee, at the instruction of a Power Fuels supervisor, went to the Watford City police with a story implying that Belk had once stolen Percocet from the glove compartment of his truck, according to the police file, obtained under state open records laws. Police did not appear to investigate the claim, so it remained unsubstantiated.
Belk’s family wanted to sue Nuverra. But they ran headlong into the nearly universal legal force field preventing lawsuits against employers when an employee is injured or killed. Instead, workers or their families are supposed to collect from workers’ compensation, which is intended to speed assistance to workers and their families in exchange for smaller amounts of money.
Workers’ compensation death benefits would mean about $300,000 for Mariah, a shot at college and a boost for a life with no father.
But North Dakota, like other states, prevents payouts if there is substance abuse involved in the injury.
They disagree with the classification of drugs as key cause of his death, but they can’t get a lawyer to take on the challenge because of the substance abuse cited in the autopsy report.
“We’ve been through three or four attorneys in North Dakota,” Vikki Daggett said.
Massello cautioned against using his medical determinations to settle legal questions.
“Everybody calls these things ‘rulings,'” said Massello, who declined to discuss Belk’s case specifically. “They’re not rulings. They’re classifications, and they mean absolutely nothing when it comes to legal proceedings.”
Why did he die?
Belk’s death passed with little notice in the booming Bakken. There was a story in the local paper about police referring his death to OSHA, but his name didn’t appear.
But his family isn’t letting him be forgotten. They’ve had black rubber wristbands made with red type that reads “Brandon Belk” and “Hug it out.” Several have gotten tattoos with his name.
They’ve taken some of his ashes, combined with ashes from his favorite tank top shirt, put them in 27 bullets taken from the magazine of his .45-caliber handgun and turned them into necklaces. Someone even printed up decals with his name and the date of his death flanked by angel wings.
During the Independence Day holiday last summer, they gathered at his sister’s farm near Minot to commemorate the anniversary of his death. In 90-degree heat, they rode in four-wheelers a half-mile down to the coulee. A ravine with a creek and a water hole where cows graze in the summer, it was his favorite spot on the farm.
They planted bright red daisies and spread some of his ashes and played some of his favorite songs on their iPhones.
“We shared a few stories, and tears, and laugher,” Myers said. “We just kind of focused on him.”
To the family members who gathered that day, it is clear that state and federal authorities let Brandon Belk down by failing to investigate properly. To those state and federal authorities, it is equally clear that Belk caused his own death, and their files are closed. Any further questions simply go unanswered.
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